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Blackbird

Common Blackbird Male Blackbird Male
Glossy black plumage with orange-yellow bill.
Distribution map - when and where you are most likely to see the species.
Turdus merula
Length: 24-25 cm  (10")
Wing Span: 35-38 cm  (14-15")
Weight: 80-125 g  (3-4½ oz) Female Blackbird Female
Dark brown plumage with faintly spotted breast.
Breeding Pairs: 4 400 000
Present: All Year
Status: Green

Description

The glossy black plumage and the orange-yellow bill and eye ring of the mature male Blackbird makes it easily recognisable.

The mature female has dark-brown upper parts and underparts, and yellow-brown bill. The underparts are speckled and she usually has a pale throat (but not to be confused with the white-throated Ring Ouzel, see photo below).

The juveniles are reddish-brown (rufous) with paler spotting that is similar to that of the adult female but more spotted and redder. After the juvenile female moults, late summer to autumn, she is indistinguishable from an older female. However, while the juvenile male moults his wing feathers will remain brown (known as a 1st-winter male), also the eye ring and bill will be a "dirty" yellow, and it will be another year before his plumage is entirely black, and his eye ring and bill are pure orange-yellow.

Albinism and leucism is common in Blackbirds, but there are even more that are "partially albino" (e.g. white head, or white patches on the wings, see photographs below). Albinism is a complete lack of pigment whereas leucistic birds have weak pigmentation and appear "wishy-washy". See feathers for more explanation.

In bygone times Blackbirds and other song birds were a delicacy, a fact we are reminded of in the rhyme:

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye
Four-and-twenty Blackbirds baked in a pie
When the pie was opened the birds begin to sing
Oh wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the King

Voice

Choose from Quicktime and mp3. Song Alarm Call
  Quicktime mp3 Quicktime mp3

The Blackbird sings from a perch and its song is rich, varied and flute-like, but usually finishes in a squeaky phrase. Their calls are loud and varied. The warning call is given with flicking wings and tail and sounds a little like "chook", and the alarm call is a loud rattle.

During the winter, Blackbirds can often be heard quietly "singing to themselves" within undergrowth, this is called sub-song. Later, in the spring and summer, the male Blackbird sings from a prominent song post (see bird song article). After July, when the breeding season is over, the male Blackbird will stop singing and will not be heard properly again until February.

William Henley wrote:

The nightingale has a lyre of gold,
The lark's is a clarion call,
And the blackbird plays but a boxwood flute,
But I love him best of all.

For his song is all of the joy of life,
And we in the mad, spring weather,
We two have listened till he sang
Our hearts and lips together.

Feeding

The Blackbird feeds on insects and earthworms taken from the ground either by probing the ground, such as a lawn, or noisily turning over leaf litter with its bill.

Like the Song Thrush, the Blackbird often runs across the garden, pauses briefly before taking some food, then runs back to cover. Unlike the Song Thrush it rarely eats snails, though there are increasing reports of Blackbirds stealing snails that Song Thrushes have cracked open.

More unusual food has included Blackbirds taking tadpoles, newts, and small fish. In the autumn they will often spend much time eating cotoneaster berries and windfall fruits (e.g. apples), which they will aggressively defend from other birds.

The Blackbird will feed off the ground or from a ground table, taking sultanas and raisins, and kitchen scraps.

Nesting

The nest is an untidy cup built by the female from vegetation, such as grass and twigs, and bound together with mud and finer grasses. The nest is usually in a hedge or bush, though they will use shelves in huts and other outbuildings.

The nesting attempts of Blackbirds, and other species that nest in open nests, often end in failure through inexperienced birds deserting the nest, cold weather and predation by cats, crows and birds of prey. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 9 out of 10 nesting attempts end in failure.

The smooth, glossy eggs are light greenish-blue with reddish-brown spots, and approximately 29 mm by 22 mm. The female incubates the eggs by herself. After the young hatch, they are fed by both parents.

Breeding Data
Breeding Starts Number of Clutches Number of Eggs Incubation (days) Fledge (days)
March 2-3 3-5 10-19 10-19

Movements

Blackbirds in the UK are mostly resident, though a few do migrate to southern Europe for the winter.

In the winter our population increases manifold (up to 20 million) with birds migrating from Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Many of these migrants have duller bills than our resident birds.

Conservation

A Medium BTO Alert has been issued for Blackbirds because numbers have fallen by over a third since the 1970's, especially in rural areas.

My Garden

Graph of garden visits.

During the winter of 1999-2000 we had up to 11 Blackbirds in the garden feeding on windfall apples.

In 2001 and 2002 a pair of Blackbirds built a nest in our Photinia bush, but each time their attempts failed because of Magpies raiding the nest for eggs.

The chart above shows that numbers are steady throughout the year, except for a lull in the autumn when they are moulting, and peaks:

Further Reading

"The Blackbird", Shire Natural History (details)


Last revision: 21 Feb 2015
Copyright © David Gains 1999-2015.
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