Fieldfares arrive in large flocks in early autumn and stay to spring, long after the last mushrooms have gone.
In the depths of winter, when days last barely eight hours, spring seems a very long way away. The bare branches and lack of birdsong only compounds the sense of an unwelcoming landscape, but in fact there is plenty to celebrate.
Far from finding our fields and woods barren and uninviting, Continental birds flood here in their millions. Most visible are the social birds, such as pigeons and starlings, that form huge flocks on farmland. Sadly the latter have suffered serious population declines as a breeding species in recent years, mainly due to changes in agriculture, but pigeons seem to be on an unstoppable upward climb.
Among the winter visitors redwings and fieldfares and fieldfares are particularly welcome. These are both members of the thrush family and like the rest of the clan are omnivores, but the shortage of worms and insects in winter drives them to a largely vegetarian diet. Both congregate in large chattering flocks – often mixed together – on farmland, foraging in grass for any careless invertebrates and stripping the hedges of the last berries.
Both are more colourful than the resident blackbird and song- and mistle thrushes. The redwing is the drabber of the two, but it lives up to its name by flashing a rusty underwing as it flies, while the fieldfare sports a slate blue head and tail. Later in the winter, as supplies of wild food run low, the birds move into suburban gardens to feed on the last windfalls and rosehips – and in really cold weather even visiting bird tables. In March and April their numbers will begin to dwindle. First to go are the wily older birds, which peel off to return to Scandinavia to secure the best nesting sites, but by late April even the youngsters will have disappeared to higher latitudes.
This concept of Britain as an ideal winter holiday destination, followed by a summer flirting with frost can seem strange, but the draw is a northern June and July with over 20 hours of daylight. It may still be chilly, but the sun’s energy creates an explosion of plant life which in turn fosters countless insects and their larvae – perfect protein for growing chicks. Even better, their parents have longer to search out tasty morsels. Fieldfares certainly turn this to their advantage, producing maybe two clutches of five or six eggs each year. This may add up to less than our resident blackbird’s three or four clutches of four eggs, but it is balanced by lower mortality thanks to better food.
This equation clearly makes sense for fieldfares, but it is always sad to wake one spring morning to find the countryside suddenly bereft of the chattering flocks with their bouncy flight. But perhaps it is just as well. Unlike our drab, retiring thrushes, nesting fieldfares are particularly aggressive, dive-bombing even human intruders with parcels of well-aimed excrement that make seagulls seem positively benign.
This article is reproduced by kind permission of Daniel Butler www.fungiforays.co.uk