David Profumo examines the folklore surrounding a bird whose call has been likened to ‘a harlot’s chortle’.
They call him everything from mizzly Dick to Jeremy joy and he’s said to be deaf, speak seven languages and grow a new set of legs every decade. What is certain is that Britain’s largest songbird, the mistle thrush, maintains a powerful treetop presence throughout the cold months and is, effectively, our countryside’s winter clarion.
Turdus viscivorus (the Linnaean name signifies ‘devourer of mistletoe’) belongs to a group of birds that appears on every Continent, from the Arctic to Cape Horn, and he is distributed widely in Europe and across to Siberia. Most of our population is sedentary, although there is partial migration south during harsh weather. With a penchant for open parkland, orchards and suburban gardens, mistles occasionally roam in small flocks, but by autumn’s end, they are already roosting in pairs.
Sometimes known as big Mavis or the bull thrush, at 11in long, both sexes are noticeably larger than their much commoner cousin the song thrush, with whom they are frequently confused. The overall appearance of viscivorus is paler colder, even featuring ash-brown upper parts, a buff breast heavily marked with chestnut wedges (another sobriquet is marble thrush) and, in flight, telltale white flashes to the underwings. Like its fellow turdine the fieldfare, its wings are occasionally closed between beats, imparting a bounding rhythm to the aerial progress. A statuesque and spirited bird, the mistle’s upright stance on the ground bespeaks avian alertness.
The dry, clattering alarm call has been compared to wood being scraped against a comb and gives rise to such local nicknames as skrite and jercock. That early Christian killjoy Clement of Alexandria likened this sound to ‘a harlot’s chortle’, although one wonders which hedgerows he frequented. The actual song, which one can hear from October through to May, is often described as wild or broken; a far-carrying, semi-continuous series of rough notes, it lacks both the rich musicality of the familiar song thrush and the blackbird’s fluting quality, but seems uniquely to defy the elements.
The mistle famously eschews the onset of inclement weather, raising a welcome voice even during squalls of snow. This hibernal soloist is often dubbed the stormcock for its unseasonal boldness. A Renaissance poem, The Harmony of Birds, has it caroling ‘Sanctus, sanctus’ an improvement on whatever they heard down Alexandria way. As far back as Aristotle, these birds were described as feeding off mistle-toe although, in Mediterranean vine-yards, the hemiparasite bears red berries. English folk belief maintains the viscous fruits can only germinate once they have passed through a thrush’s system the plant’s name derives from an ancient word for ‘dung twig’ but just as likely a method is the wiping of sticky beaks on branches.
The big Mavis is actually an omnivore; as well as gorging on berries from ivy, mountain ash and holly (holm screech is yet another name), it seeks out beetles and worms and occasionally breaks snails on a stone anvil. Ted Hughes celebrated its mechanical feeding energy: ‘Nothing but bounce and stab.’ It requires a wide foraging territory of up to 40 acres per pair and, although rather shy during most of the year, has a pugnacious reputation for protecting its food sites, particularly in raw weather. Such ‘resource guarding’ has earned it the Welsh title Pen y Llwyn or ‘master of the coppice’. Any cock bird calling from atop a winter food supply is likely to attract a ready mate one reason mistle thrushes are notably early breeders.
With courtship beginning before any other garden species, they may begin nidification in February and aren’t fussy about sites. Rock ledges and even buildings may be selected, but the preferred location is the fork of a branch a safe distance above ground. Since this may involve a deciduous tree still bare before spring, the nest is uncommonly conspicuous ‘you do not find a mistle thrush’s nest; it finds you’, wrote Viscount Grey of Fallodon.
Its large mossy cup is reinforced with mud and may incorporate what one ornithologist terms ‘the rejectamenta’ of human untidiness scraps of paper, plastic or wool. Often double-brooded, between March and June the mistle lays a clutch of five or six greenish eggs, intensely spotted with lilac and brown. The bulky nest is a target for jackdaws, cats and other predators, which the parents combat ferociously; they are said to take on human intruders and even to slay various fledgling cousins. Under such circumstances, the ‘butcher bird’ does not sound like such a misnomer.
Although toxic to us, mistletoe has long been credited with medicinal properties and its identification with this bird meant mizzly Dick was once hunted for his flesh as a cure for epilepsy. Thrushes have historically been trapped for the table and Erasmus records a Latin proverb to the effect that ‘the thrush excretes trouble for itself’—the mistletoe gum was a key ingredient in manufacturing birdlime. Cooked like quail casseroled in Madeira, perhaps, or roasted with fines herbes they are reputedly delicious. I once enjoyed a luncheon of pâté de grives, with a carafe of Château des Moines claret. Old Clement would surely have disapproved.