The Fieldfare

The Fieldfare

The Fieldfare has been described as “a classic herald of winter” and their routine arrival each autumn has been recognised in Britain since Chaucer’s day (1340-1400).He wrote “Above all the bird’s of winter, the frosty feldefares” which encapsulates the way most Britons think of them.

Fieldfares are certainly striking birds, and have long excited the attention of country folk. In Spain they are held in high regard for their striking appearance, so much so that the Spanish call them the royal thrush “Zorzal real”.Its English name comes from the Anglo-Saxon feldefare or feldeware meaning field traveller.In some other countries it is also named after its habitat, for instance in Sweden and Germany it is referred to as the birch thrush, in Denmark as the field thrush and in Greenland as the big bird of the willow shrub.In Norfolk the Fieldfare’s harsh cry before rain has earned it the name storm bird although it is not clear whether the bird has been confusedwith the Mistle Thrush.

The Romans regarded Fieldfares as delicate eating, keeping thousands of them in aviaries where they were fattened on a paste of bruised figs and flour.They, and Redwings , were almost deprived of light, fed well and then sold for 3 denarri each.

Apparently a notorious old Hampshire sportsman Colonel Peter Hawker wrote in his diary on 2nd February 1831 of how Fieldfares could be taken in large numbers.

“An extraordinary influx of fieldfares, not less than 20,000, dispersed round Keyhaven and Westover, and so tame that you might have kept firing from morning till night, though I found it impossible to get more than five in one shot…It was quite laughable when the storm ceased this afternoon to see and hear the levy en masse of tag-rag popgunners blazing away at the fieldfare.The whole country for miles around was in one incessant state of siege” Hawker noted later that “I never ate more delicious birds in my life”.

The depletion of the Scandinavian rowan crop triggers the Fieldfare’s movements from Scandinavia as far as the African coast.Once the British bound birds have crossed the North Sea they congregate in open pasture or ploughland to hunt for invertebrates.Roughly one million arrive each year and if the weather turns bad they move further west in search of feeding areas.If the ground is frozen they will also take fruit particularly holly, hawthorn and dog rose.On occasions Fieldfares are unable to escape the harsh weather conditions.In the 1962-63 winter ten weeks of severe frost and biting east winds reduced a flock of Fieldfare at Cley to a pitiable condition.Conditions were so severe that they had to content themselves by pecking at frozen carrots in the fields.They became so feeble that many, clustered around a water-hole in the ice of a marsh dyke were blown in by the bitter wind and drowned.

In Norfolk mid October is the main arrival period and their have been some impressive passages of this species.At Hunstanton 35,000 were noted on the 5th November 1961 and 15,00 on 28th October 1978.In October 1996 there was a major influx and another wave in November producing a total of 72,000 birds.Occasionally large flocks can be seen during the winter months and will remain into early spring prior to their nocturnal departure by the end of April.
A handful of pairs are now known to nest annually in Britain, but they breed throughout Scandinavia and much of eastern Europe.Unusually for a thrush, the Fieldfare nests in colonies and indulges in furious communal defence by flying at predators and defacating over them with spectacular accuracy.Merlins and other species often nest in the middle of Fieldfare colonies and benefit from their aggression in keeping away owls and larger raptors.

This is truly a remarkable species. – Alwyn Jackson

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