Take On Nature: Redwing and fieldfare, winter thrushes that help turn the year

Redwing (Turdus iliacus) – they arrive in Ireland from mid-October, after the rowan berry crop in Norway and Sweden is finished
Stephen Colton

ALTHOUGH, in the words of the carol we are still ‘in bleak midwinter', the days after Christmas begin to show their stretch, whispering to us that the world is turning as it should, propelling us to the promise of another spring. The lengthening days encourage further those green stems already peeping through soil from sunken bulbs.

Heartened by these small signs of new beginnings and a desire to leave the indulgences of recent days behind, I went for a bracing walking around the local rural roads. Always hoping to see something of interest, the numerous bright flashes of red, rising from a hedgerow alerted me to the presence of flocking redwings, and fieldfares, winter thrushes which arrive here, like the Eastern kings, driven by cold north eastern winds from Scandinavia to seek the milder conditions and softer pastures of the Irish countryside.

Nineteenth Century English poet John Clare wrote of them as the birds ‘That come and go on winter's chilling wind'. Arriving here from mid-October onwards, usually after the rowan berry crop in Norway and Sweden is finished, they are striking birds.

The fieldfare (Turdus pilaris), the larger of the two, is about the size of our resident mistle thrush and is appropriately named ‘sacán' in Irish – the frost bird. Its head, nape and rump are slate grey, with a chestnut back and almost black dark tail.

Fieldfares in flight are obvious by their white underwing and constant noisy ‘chack-chack' calls, something Clare also referenced when he wrote, ‘The Fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn'.

In another of his poems he talks about how, ‘schoolboys on their morning ramble' are seen ‘plucking haws on which their fieldfares feed'. They regularly flock with Redwings and our native song and mistle thrushes, feeding in open rough pasture taking insects, fruit and berries.

The redwing (Turdus iliacus), a smaller bird, matches the size of our song thrush or blackbird. In flight, the very noticeably dark red underwing gives the bird its name. They also have a distinctive white eye stripe and reddish flanks while both birds have the characteristic mottled brown spots on the breast like their cousins.

The call of the Redwing is a more high-pitched ‘zzip-zzip' and like the Fieldfare it feeds in open countryside, joining other birds, for berries of hawthorn, rowan and holly as well as worms and insects. It will occasionally visit gardens where berries are on offer and again its Irish names suggest its winter links, with ‘deargán sneachta' meaning the red snow bird or ‘siocán', a variation of ‘sacán, the frost bird.

Evidence of the presence of both these birds stretches back to early literature and folklore, with Chaucer giving a mention to the ‘frosty fieldfare' in his 1382 work, The Parlement of Fowls and the fishermen of Dover and Folkestone who tell stories of ‘the herring spear' or ‘herring piece', the rushing, rustling sound heard on the English Channel on dark, still winter nights.

The sound is caused by the ‘pretty little birds the redwings as they cross the water on their way to warmer regions'. The fishermen listen to the sound with awe and regard it as an omen of good success with their nets.

Seeing both birds up close, with their colourful markings, brought cheer to a midwinter walk and reminded me that when the year turns, the breeding urge will draw them back to their northern home. By then, the lengthening days here will signal spring is close.

Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh. Happy New Year to you.

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