Photograph of a male blackbird

Song of the Blackbird

Academic in the Department of Zoology, and one of our visitor engagement volunteers in the Museum, Dr Tony Fulford writes:

Photograph of a male blackbird
Image credit: Ulla Moilanen

How many people don’t recognise one of the nation’s favourite birds?  For those unfamiliar with the blackbird, the male is jet black with a bright yellow bill and yellow ring around his eye.  The female is similar-looking but is dark brown, often with a few speckles on a paler throat, and no yellow parts. The fledglings are rather like the female but flecked with orange feathers and much paler and speckled below, though not as neatly so as a Song Thrush. They hunt on the ground, running a few paces, then stopping and cocking their head to look or listening for worms or other invertebrates.  You might also hear them scratching around in the leaves under a hedge: they turn dead leaves over hoping to find tasty creepy-crawlies hiding under there.

Photograph of blackbird chicks in a nest
Blackbird chicks in nest. Image credit: Tony Fulford

‘The powerful, fruity and melodious song of the blackbird is one of the loveliest of all birds. Their appeal probably stems from the fact that the song is among the deepest of all songbirds – right down in the same register as the human voice: an avian cello. We are so fortunate that one of the wonders of the world occurs in our suburban gardens every year: at dawn at this time of year the songs of every blackbird in the neighbourhood fill the air and echo off the buildings – glorious and breath-taking!

Listen to the beautiful sound of a dawn chorus of suburban blackbirds

Adult blackbirds aren’t as tame as (European) Robins, though they are clearly highly tolerant of human activity.  Their fledglings are a different matter.  They are out to discover the world and where all the food comes from.  It’s easy to lure them with dried mealworms.  A few years ago the young of one brood in our garden used to routinely wander around our house searching for wormy treats.  Dad (who takes care of the fledglings while Mum broods the next clutch) was much more wary but did eventually follow his charges into the house.  The young, who had been happily feeding themselves up to that point, immediately began to beg their father to feed them.  He was nervously obliging when my phone (whose ring tone happened to be a blackbird’s song!) began to ring.  He shot out through the French windows and never set foot in the house again!  His youngsters, however, were back for more worms the following day.

Last year, as I was standing in the garden taking in the spring freshness, a male blackbird flew over the fence and landed at my feet, apparently completely unperturbed by my presence.  Intrigued, I returned to the house to collect a fat ball and fed him crumbs from it.  That was the start of a summer-long friendship.  Whenever I entered the garden he’d spot me and run towards me.  If I didn’t happen to have brought any fat ball with me he’d wait patiently while I popped back to get one.  On numerous occasions he’d spot me in the house, fly up and hover at the window anticipating another treat.  His mate clearly thought he was mad and clucked a loud alarm.  He seemed to understand what was alarming her … and that he knew better.   He even used me to infiltrate his neighbour’s territory – he knew his neighbour wouldn’t come anywhere near me.

 ‘It did, of course, occur to me that this was one of the youngsters who used to enter the house looking for mealworms.  He couldn’t have been though because from his plumage (dark brown rather than jet black flight feathers) he was clearly a 2nd year bird while the mealworm chicks would have been 4 or 5 years old by then.

‘Blackbirds act as the garden alarm system: if there is a cat or other threat on the prowl, the blackbirds will set up a chorus of “tac’ alarm calls.  At breakfast only this morning they alerted me to something going on in the garden.  No cat sneaking about … then suddenly a male sparrowhawk swooped across the lawn and landed on the fence.  Their alarm calls reveal how threatening our garden blackbirds find us.  While they will fire off a rapid volley of loud alarms if we surprise them, generally our presence is not greeted with the chorus of scolding alarm calls that known villains such as a cat, hawk or owl would raise.’

Photograph of a blackbird from Open Your Window Bingo

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