The Mistle Thrush – That Other Christmas Bird
Britain’s favourite bird, the little robin redbreast is the bird most associated with Christmas, with turkeys perhaps coming in a close second. But what about the mistle thrush? Less familiar than its cousin the song thrush with which it is often confused, we think the mistle thrush deserves a seat at the Christmas table.
The mistle thrush was first described by Carl Linnaeus in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae, in which the binomial nomenclature for animal species was introduced. Turdus is the Latin for thrush while viscivorus means “mistletoe eater” from viscum (mistletoe) and vorare (devour). At the time mistle was the word for mistletoe, and so, the English name given to the bird was mistle thrush.
A fondness for mistletoe
Where mistletoe is available it is the preferred choice of plant food for mistle thrushes, and they will vigorously defend large clumps of it against other thrushes as well as bullfinches and great spotted woodpeckers. This behaviour is also observed in robins and other thrushes but is generally rare among fruit-eating birds and only occurs when food is scarce during hard winters. In milder weather mistle thrushes will happily feed in flocks alongside fieldfares and redwings.
In areas where mistletoe is less common, including the UK, mistle thrushes will also eat the berries of holly, ivy, and yew, as well as crab apples, blackberries, elderberries, and hawthorn. If you’ve ever seen a holly bush stripped bare of its berries the culprit was probably a mistle thrush.
The Victorians believed that mistletoe seeds would only germinate if they had passed through the body of a mistle thrush. Although this isn’t entirely correct mistle thrushes are important in the propagation of mistletoe. Passing through the gut helps vernalise the seeds which makes them more likely to germinate. The flesh of the mistletoe berries is very sticky so once a mistle thrush has had its fill it will attempt to clean its beak by rubbing it on a branch. This is another way that they help spread the seeds and propagate the plant.
Mistletoe is already very much connected with Christmas, and therefore by association we like to think so is the mistle thrush. Although in the age of #MeToo is being forced to kiss a stranger under a bunch of mistletoe one Christmas tradition that may have to die out?
A Christmas caroller
But it’s not just its fondness for mistletoe that makes the mistle thrush a contender for a Christmas bird. Mistle thrushes, like robins, are one of the few birds that will sing through the winter. Indeed, its country nickname ‘storm cock’ reflects its tendency to defend its territory by singing loudly from a high perch in even the most wet and windy weather.
In Thomas Hardy’s popular winter poem, The Darkling Thrush, the narrator observing the land around him, laments the end of the year when:
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead,
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited.
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
With blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
Although the bird in the poem is described as small and frail and its singing as ‘carolings’ it is usually identified as a mistle thrush. And the bird in Edward Thomas’s poem The Thrush singing from the top of a tree in winter is probably a mistle thrush.
I hear the thrush, and I see
Him alone at the end of the lane
Near the bare poplar’s tip,
If you’re lucky enough to hear a bird singing on Christmas day, it’s much more likely to be the spirited song of a mistle thrush than the sombre strains of a robin.
A festive treat
Mistle thrushes are the largest species of European thrush with a rather plump belly and small head. It can be distinguished from the song thrush by the markings on its breast. Whereas song thrushes have upside down arrows arranged in neat lines, mistle thrushes have bolder splodges that extend onto the belly. They can be found across the UK and will venture into gardens when food in the countryside is scarce.
Unfortunately, mistle thrushes are on the Red List having suffered a severe decline in their population of 54% since 1967. A couple of reasons have been put forward which are possibly linked: decreased juvenile survival rates, and fewer natural food sources due to modern farming practices.
So if a mistle thrush pays you a visit this Christmas give it a helping hand by putting out some of its favourite food. You may not have mistletoe growing in your garden but a handful of raisins, or some pieces of fruit will go down a festive treat with this boisterous little bird.
Happy Christmas from the team at Bird Spot x