Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Traveller of the fields

The harsh dry calls of passing Fieldfares have become a feature of my early morning walks, the distinctive notes resonant in the half-light. An upward glance and I can just about make out the shapes of these larger thrushes, newly arrived from Scandinavia, as they flick by overhead. I am equally likely to stumble across these birds later in the day, perhaps flushing a flock from a berry-covered hedgerow or a quiet pasture.

Good numbers have arrived this autumn, perhaps a little later than in recent years but I suspect that we will see a sizeable population wintering here. Fieldfares tend to remain on their breeding grounds for as long as there is food available. Rowan berries are favoured and once these are gone the birds move on elsewhere, often in the company of other thrushes. The movements are nomadic in nature, the birds responding to both food availability and weather conditions. Flocks will often feed on insects and earthworms taken from farmland fields. During the hardest weather, when the ground is frozen and soil-dwelling invertebrates unavailable, the birds have to turn to opportunities elsewhere. It is during the worst of the weather that they will turn to gardens, raiding berry-producing shrubs and windfall apples. Orchards may also be used during the autumn and winter, from soon after the birds have first arrived until the fruits have gone.

The Fieldfare is a striking bird; larger than a Blackbird this is a robust thrush, boldly marked with a grey head and rump, a chestnut back and chestnut and black wings. The breast is washed buff and marked with dark spots that become larger in size down the flanks. The name itself comes from the Anglo Saxon word ‘feldware’ which literally translates as ‘traveller of the fields’ a reference to both its nomadic nature and preference for open fields.

Although a gregarious species, the Fieldfare may sometimes use its size to defend a food resource, such as a berry-producing shrub or a single windfall apple. This form of food defence is also seen in the Mistle Thrush. Unusually for a thrush, Fieldfares often nest together in a loose colony, where they can then work collectively to see off would-be predators. The birds will dive at the predator, calling loudly and defecating on the intruder, a behaviour that is usually enough to drive the predator away.

As you might expect for such a nomadic species, the Fieldfares that you see here this winter may have spent the previous winter somewhere else entirely. Birds ringed in Britain have, for example, been found in subsequent winters as far away as the Po Delta region of northern Italy. This could make your garden quite a cosmopolitan destination this winter. 

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