Sing a Song of Sixpence

The blackbird is one of the UK’s most familiar birds. A much-loved visitor to people’s gardens, it is famous for its tuneful birdsong. Found in woodland, farmland and parks across the country, the blackbird can live as successfully in an urban environment as it can in rural areas.

There are an estimated 5.1 million pairs of blackbirds in Britain and this is boosted to around 15 million in winter, when the native UK population is joined by migrants from Scandinavia and the Baltics.

Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the average lifespan of a blackbird is three to four years.

Blackbird

© Angelika / Adobe Stock

 

Appearance and habits

The male blackbird is unmistakable: black feathers contrast the bright yellow beak and they have a yellow ring around each eye. The female is dark brown, with a streaked effect on her chest and throat. Young blackbirds are dark brown, with ginger-coloured streaks all over their body. On average, an adult blackbird grows to 24cm long, with a wingspan of 36cm. They weigh around 100g.

Especially fond of digging up earthworms, they can be found all year round in Britain. In fact, if you see a blackbird on your lawn with its head cocked to one side, it’s listening for earthworms, according to the Wildlife Trust. Blackbirds also eat insects and berries, so if you want to attract them to your garden, grow berry-producing bushes, or leave out a few apples on your bird-table.

 

Breeding

Blackbirds often feed and roost in small groups at a good site, but there is no proper social interaction. The male blackbird establishes his own territory during his first year and tends to hold the same spot throughout his life. This is vital for him to meet a mate and nest.

A male blackbird’s territory can be as small as 0.2 hectares. Once the last brood of the season has flown the nest, the territory boundaries begin to break down, but they are re-established in the late autumn. Between spring and July, the resident birds will defend their territory against all other blackbirds.

The population went into a decline from the 1970s until the mid-1990s, when the blackbird was placed on the amber list of species under threat. A loss of habitat, including hedgerows and farmland, was cited as one of the main reasons. A period of recovery began in 1995 and the population rose steadily until 2008, with a 26% increase recorded overall. The status of the species then became green.

Blackbirds thrive in gardens and the number of chicks that survive per nest is higher than in most other habitats.

 

Nursery rhyme

Blackbirds have become entrenched in popular culture over the years, with the popular nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence, telling the unfortunate tale of 24 blackbirds who were baked in a pie for the king. However, the birds miraculously survived and “when the pie was opened, the birds began to sing”!

The fourth verse describes how the maid was hanging out clothes in the garden when “along came a blackbird and snipped off her nose”. The first verse first appeared in print in 1744, in the anthology, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, which was published in London. The lyrics have remained a mystery, with several theories put forward as to their meaning.

Bizarrely, in the 16th century, putting live birds in a pie was a form of entertainment. A recipe book which originated in Italy in 1549 described how to make a pie so that the birds survived and “flew out” when it was cut open. The practice was mentioned again in 1725 in a cookery book by John Nott.

Another theory was that the nursery rhyme was used by the pirate captain, Blackbeard, as a coded message to recruit his crew. The weekly wage was 6d and a hip-flask full of rye whisky. The “blackbirds” was said to be the nickname for Blackbeard’s pirates. This was dismissed as an unfounded “urban legend” by some critics.

Some historians believe the 24 blackbirds in the pie represent the hours in a day. The birds singing as the pie is opened represents the dawn chorus at daybreak. Unfortunately, no hard evidence has been unearthed to support any of the theories and the origins and meaning of the lyrics remain largely speculative.

 

Cultural significance

Blackbirds have great cultural significance all over the world, as they represent knowledge and are believed to be magical birds. However, for centuries, they scared people because of their dark feathers and they were associated with something dark and other-worldly. They were often believed to be the messenger of death.

As one of the few creatures associated with both negative and positive energy and myths, the blackbird appears in the mythology of Native Americans and is said to be a “guide to the underworld”. In Christianity, St Benedict was tempted by a blackbird who turned out to be the devil in disguise.

In ancient Celtic culture, blackbirds were believed to have prophetic knowledge. People who study the meanings of dreams say a flock of blackbirds in a dream is an omen of good changes on the horizon. In particular, it means a change in your personal outlook.

The blackbird is one of the most fascinating species in the world and a search online reveals there have been thousands of articles written about this beautiful bird, which has been the subject of intrigue for centuries.

 

The beautiful spring air is full of birdsong!

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