Life

Take on Nature: Song thrush's sound sparks a journey into the past

The thrush’s far-carrying phrases are repeated three or four times from males sitting on a high perch
Stephen Colton

APPRECIATION of the natural world depends on how we engage and work our senses beyond the ordinary. With the fusion of spring and summer now under way, our senses are presented daily with interesting sights, earthly sounds and truly fragrant smells.

This was evident to me recently when I heard a familiar tapping sound at the front of the house, a sound I've heard often. A song thrush (Turdus philomelos), ‘smólach ceoil', the musical thrush in Irish, was hammering a snail on a nearby stone.

This common practice where thrushes repeatedly hammer their snail on a stone or ‘anvil‘, to crack it open, is another example of ancient genes at work. Hearing and watching this thrush sparked off a trail into its deepest past.

The song thrush, described by 19th century English poet Robert Browning (in Home Thoughts from Abroad) as the "wise thrush; he sings each song twice over", is one of our finest songsters alongside the blackbird.

A bird recognisable to most people, it has plain brown upper parts and a buffish white underside with prominent arrow-shaped black spots down the breast and flanks.

Compared with the blackbird's mellow, meditative notes, the thrush's far-carrying phrases are repeated three or four times from males sitting on a high perch. They nest in trees, hedgerows and garden shrubs feeding mainly on insects, snails and worms, something poet Ted Hughes neatly describes in Thrushes, where he writes of its "poised dark deadly eye" and how it can "with a start, a bounce, a stab… drag out some writhing thing" from the lawn. Thrushes also feast on berries in the winter season.

Many old names continue to be used for the thrush, such as Mavis and throstle. Mavis was used by Chaucer and Shakespeare and is still heard in parts of England, Ireland and Scotland.

Coming from the French ‘mauvis', it may be of Celtic origin. Glynn Anderson, in his book Birds of Ireland; Facts, Folklore and History explains how in 19th century Ireland, it was believed that the fairies made sure a ‘Mavis' built its nest low near their homes in the grass so they could enjoy the thrush's song.

Throstle comes from the German word for thrush, ‘drossel'.

Delving into the bird's name reveals some interesting historical associations stretching back to ancient times. The thrush's specific scientific name ‘philomelos' refers to Philomela, a princess in Greek mythology. She was a sister of Procne who had married King Tereus. He was a wicked man, however, who lusted after Philomela and had her tongue cut out to ensure she could not tell her sister of their affair.

He hid her and told Procne, his wife, that her sister was dead. Unable to speak, Philomela wove a tapestry depicting the story of what happened to her and asked an old woman to take it to Procne.

Enraged when she saw this, Procne rescued her sister and planned revenge on her husband by killing their son, Itys. As Tereus chased the women, the gods transformed the sisters into birds, Philomela a nightingale/thrush and Procne a swallow.

Philomela is derived from Ancient Greek, philo – (loving) and melos (song). The legend says that, even as a bird, Philomela remained broken-hearted. She hid away from other birds and remained silent while they were singing. At night however, when all was dark and still, she used to sing, telling the story of her and her sister's sorrow.

It's surprising what a simple sound or sight can trigger if we allow our senses to engage.

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