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Feeding the thrushes

by Malcolm Ogilvie

Song ThrushDespite some very mixed weather, there have been many reports from all parts of Britain that the summer just past has been an excellent one for breeding by many garden birds and especially by Song Thrushes. This is good news as this species has suffered more than a 50% decline since the 1970s. Survival of the young birds through the coming winter will be crucial to ensuring that this year's good production leads to more breeding pairs next year, but at least there are plenty of young to start with.

Three pairs of Song Thrushes and four of Blackbirds bred in my garden or in my neighbour's, nearly all of them rearing two broods. My neighbour has more nesting hedges than I do, but I have the larger lawn, where most families were brought by their parents to feed. I also grow soft fruit which he doesn't, and before long the carefully netted strawberries and currants (black and red), and the fruit cage containing our raspberries, were under siege. The strawberries and currants are protected by soft netting. It is fine mesh, so that birds are in no danger of getting entangled, but it wasn't long before I noticed that when two or three young Blackbirds or Song Thrushes stood on the netting together, it would sag enough for them to be able to peck at the fruit below. And after this had happened once or twice, I'm convinced that it was a co-operative effort with the birds realising that they needed help from their siblings and friends in order to produce sufficient weight for success!

BlackbirdsThe fruit cage was built, like all such structures, to be bird-proof. If only! I inspected it as the raspberries flowered and was satisfied that no bird would be able to gain entry. However, I seriously underestimated the persistence, the ingenuity and, above all, the ability to learn that birds can exhibit. As soon as the fruit began to ripen, a walk down the garden would be greeted by a Blackbird or Song Thrush alarm call as the birds inside the cage tried to get out. When I wasn't in sight, they seemed to enter and leave at will, but the slight panic induced by my presence was enough for them to forget that they knew the way out. Careful checking found no holes in the netting and no apparent gaps for the birds to enter by, yet on some days an entire family of Blackbirds would be inside the fruit cage and an awful lot of raspberries would be inside the Blackbirds.

Like so many birdwatchers who are also gardeners, I find I have a very ambivalent attitude to the marauding hordes. I rejoiced that it had been a good breeding season for these familiar and friendly birds, but my enjoyment of fresh raspberries and cream is such that I resented having to share the crop with them. My wife has suggested I grow more raspberries outside the fruit cage and donate them to the birds. However, I am not at all convinced that this would reduce the attacks on the fruit cage, as she thinks would be case. I suspect it would merely fuel their appetite for more. Still, if it results in even a small contribution to restoring Song Thrush numbers, perhaps it will be worth it.

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Dr Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the 'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.