This December (2010) we probably have experienced one of the coldest spells for many years and during such times many of our thoughts are turned towards the local wildlife. In an attempt to ease the plight of the garden birds I have intensified the amount of feed that is put out for them and have been rewarded by visitors that one would not usually see in the garden. One such species has been the Fieldfare who has been driven into the gardens to forage for food which normally they would find in the hedgerows. Being a winter lover it is a heartening sight to see the first Fieldfares of the winter, just as the Cuckoo is deemed to be the herald of Spring, for me the Fieldfare announces the arrival of Winter.
This delightful bird has had the misfortune to have gained a rather ugly Latin name – Turdus pilaris which very loosely means it’s a member of the Thrush family. However, the etymology of the word Fieldfare is much more interesting and has been mooted to date back to Saxon times. Swann (1913, p.86) considers the term has mutated from the Old English Fealu Fōr which in modern terms means ‘fallow journey/farer’, (Clark Hall, 2004, pp. 112, 124). This may allude to the fact that the natural habitat of the bird being the winter fields which would have been fallow and their hedgerows. But what a lovely name, the ‘Fallow Farer’, does that not conjure up images of silent, frosty fields with their hedgerows laden with berries and flocks of ‘Fallow Farers’ busily flitting along them. Another name for the Fieldfare that occasionally crops up in Devon is the ‘Blue Bird’ and this alludes to the bluish tinge to the birds’ upper plumage, (Swainson, 1886, p.5).
The Fieldfare is a migrant bird that comes to the UK from its breeding grounds in Europe and Asia and usually arrives in large flocks around October time. Their preferred habitat is hawthorn hedges where they feed upon the berries but as these stocks become depleted the birds will move onto fields with surrounding hedges and trees. As noted above, the Fieldfare is a very social bird and often group into large flocks. I have seen hawthorn hedgerows literally alive with large numbers and fields studded with them. Once the flock is disturbed it will alight en masse to the accompaniment of their loud chattering alarm calls which makes for a splendid sight. On Dartmoor there are records of flock sizes ranging from 20 odd – 1,000 and they can often be seen on the moor or around the moorland fringes. Their presence is very much dictated by local weather conditions and food stocks which can vary greatly year upon year. The diet of the Fieldfare comprises of berries, insects and worms which means in mild years they will initially live on hedgerow berries and once that supply is depleted the birds will browse the fields for insects and worms. If a moorland cold snap (like the one just experienced) arrives and the fields become frozen or snow covered then the flocks will move on to find milder conditions on lower ground. This is when the Fieldfares will often turn up into our gardens although most often in single numbers as opposed to the large flocks.
Quite often the flocks of Fieldfares can be seen in the company of Redwings which from a distance can be confusing but close up their size and plumage is distinctive. They normally grow to between 20 – 28cm long and have a plain brown back, grey rump and back of the head, white under-wings, a reddish tinge to their breast which along with the flanks is heavily spotted. As mentioned before, their song consists of a loud chattering made up of ‘cheeps’, tuts’ and whistles which is unmistakable.
In normal circumstances at dusk the flocks of Fieldfares will roost in trees, on Dartmoor such sites can be found at Soussons plantation, Yarner woods. etc. However, Smalldon (2005, p.164) notes how a flock was observed on several occasion roosting amongst the heather and bracken in and around the Warren House area of the moor. It is thought that the local vegetation provided enough ground cover and height for the birds to safely retire for the night.
I was once told that the reason the Fieldfare has its distinctive red tinges is that eons ago the bird began to spend time in the company of man, gradually it became tamer and one day ventured into a house and settled beside the fire. Unfortunately it either stayed too long or got too close because the poor creature ended up burning its chest and to this day they still bear a reminder of this accident. Alas, I cannot find any record of this snippet of folklore anywhere pertaining to Dartmoor or even Devon, it seems that it has its origins in Scotland. However, on Dartmoor the sudden appearance of Fieldfares has always been regarded as a sign that winter has arrived and cold weather is on its way and this year has proven this beyond doubt. I have also heard a hedgerow full of berry laden Hawthorns described as a portent of a ‘Fieldfare Winter’, nature is providing for a harsh spell of weather.
Clark Hall, J. R. 2004. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Canada: Cambridge University Press.
Smalldon, R. 2005. The Birds of Dartmoor, Falmouth: Isabelline Books.
Swainson, Rev. C. 1886. The Folklore of British Birds, London: Elliot Stock.
Swann, H. K. 1913. Dictionary of English & Folk Names of British Birds, London: Witherby & Co.