Sing a Song of Sixpence

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The blackbird is busy in the garden, searching for insects. Despite the winter sunshine, the thermometer reads -5 and the sparkling layer of frost is unlikely to melt all day. A circle of ice, removed from the birdbath yesterday, remains solid on the grass, and the kettle-full of water poured in only hours ago has already frozen over. Christmas has come and gone, but the words of the carol “earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone” certainly ring true today. In the bleak midwinter maybe, but the blackbird is getting on with business.

He makes a surprising amount of noise for such a slight creature, picking his way through drifts of beech leaves which have blown to the lawn edges. But the leaves are stiff with frost and food is hard to find. Disgusted, he tosses a leaf aside and hops across the lawn. He stamps, making vibrations to lure worms to the surface. He stops, head cocked, listening, but worms are not to be had, they lie safe and snug below the lawn. So the blackbird must be resourceful, polishing off remaining windfall apples and berries, as well as food offered by humans. He is a surprisingly fussy diner. Sultanas are popular, but raisins are ignored; blueberries or grapes slightly best their best are pounced on, but raspberries are pecked then abandoned.

This blackbird is not alone; he shares this patch with three other adult males, all with glossy black plumage, orange beaks and distinctive ring around the eye. Earlier I saw a female, brown with a mottled chest, watching them from a bare branch, but she’s flown, leaving the males to it. They forage in close proximity, unconcerned with the others’ presence. In spring this peaceful coexistence will be over, and territorial scrapping will begin, marked by a return of the glorious, flute-like song which makes the blackbird one of Britain’s most popular birds. In winter there may be little in the way of singing, but the loud and persistent ‘chink chink’ alarm call is often heard when a perceived predator is around.

There are more blackbirds at the other end of the garden, foraging beneath the old apple tree. How many are native birds, and how many are visiting from Scandinavia or colder European climes, is impossible to say, but the RSPB estimates that between October and March there are up to 15 million blackbirds overwintering in Britain. Blackbirds come and go. In spring they are a common sight in gardens and parks, but after summer’s frantic breeding season, in autumn many adjourn to hedgerows and woodlands which offer a feast of berries. Now they’re back in abundance – some days we have a flock of them in the garden. ‘Flock’ seems too mundane a term for such a characterful bird. If there’s a charm of goldfinches, a murder of crows and an ascension of larks, why not something more evocative for the poor blackbird? Although I’m told in New Zealand they have a ‘keg’ of blackbirds (party birds indeed!).

And what about the old nursery rhyme? “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye. Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”? Well, I did unearth an old Somerset recipe for Blackbird Pudding, which called for liver, bacon, onions, field mushrooms and plenty of brown sauce. I think it would take an awful lot of HP to make blackbird palatable, but who knows? And there are accounts of Tudor chefs encasing live blackbirds in pastry to tantalise the guests; so Heston Blumenthal’s madcap culinary experiments are nothing new (sorry, Heston).

Some say the rhyme refers to Henry VIII’s romance with Anne Boleyn, others claim it was a coded message used by Blackbeard the pirate. But the suggestion I like best is that seeing a blackbird is a good omen. So as winter closes in, I wish you a New Year full of blackbirds!

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