The centre of Leeds, where I spend most working days, has been invaded by large numbers of redwings, allowing office workers and shoppers close-up views of this most attractive winter visitor from the north.
The birds are concentrated around trees and bushes that are laden with energy-giving berries – a valuable food source for Europe’s smallest species of thrush. They are fairly tame, allowing you to see their distinctive creamy eye-stripe and rusty-red flank patch.
As the sun starts to set the redwings take to the air in loose flocks. I had always assumed they were heading for night-time roosting sites, but a thrush expert has suggested that they tend to become active just before dark in order to find additional food to see them through the night.
It was on a redwing-filled early January day that I heard the clear, repeated notes of a song thrush, belting out its territorial song as the sun went down on the city.
Rather like the robin, the song thrush is known to sing throughout the winter months, but I had never come across one vocalizing so stridently in January in a city centre location.
You are, in fact, much more likely to hear the plaintive song of the mistle thrush this early in the year. This is because mistle thrushes breed unusually early, with nests sometimes being found in January and February. This powerful-looking thrush also has the country name of the ‘stormcock’, as they often sing during rainy weather.
They can nest in some surprising places in and around cities, and I have seen incubating birds inside an old gas lamp within Park Square, Leeds, and even in a set of traffic lights a short distance away on Wellington Road!
Coincidently, the blackbirds in our garden have, this week, seemingly ‘discovered’ that the cotoneaster bush that creeps up the garage has a splendid crop of bright red berries. A cock and a hen bird are both now visiting the shrub on a daily basis, though never at the same time.
Some ornithologists believe that blackbirds may have a complex mental map of reliable food sources and productive foraging areas in their winter territories. If this is true, then our garden blackbirds must visit numerous natural feeding stations throughout the neighbourhood during the winter months – all of them somehow coded into their memories.