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Blackbird, Song Thrush & Mistle Thrush

These 3 Thrushes are all singing by the time spring has arrived and their songs are similar enough to cause problems for beginners. However, they generally start singing at different times of the year, the Mistle Thrush being the earliest, followed by the Blackbird and then the Song Thrush, and this is often the best way of learning the differences.

Blackbird

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.

The Blackbird's song is liquid gold, probably the best among our garden birds and certainly a close second to the Nightingale.

Of the thrushes, the Blackbird is the real virtuoso, delivering a beautiful mellow, melodious and flute-like song at a leisurely pace. The song usually finishes with an "out of character" harsh, cackling or rattling phrase.

The song phrases are varied between individuals and may include some mimicry of other birds.

They sing from often prominent favoured song posts from February to June, when they are holding a breeding territory, but will often sing on a sunny winter's day.

After the Robin and the Wren, they are among the first to start singing in a dawn chorus. If it helps, imagine him as a "lounge lizard" in his black attire, relaxed, confidently singing "Look at me" in his soft, dulcet tones.

Blackbird 1 Blackbird 2 Blackbird 3 Blackbird 4

Song Thrush

Robert Browning wrote:

That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!

The Song Thrush's song is about repetition. It comprises several chained together phrases which it picks from a large repertoire, sings loudly and clearly, and almost always repeats the individual notes or phrases at least twice, often 4 or 5 times, or more. Then pausing, before moving on to a different phrase. It is almost as if the Song Thrush tries something, likes it so much, it sings it again.

The notes vary from being pleasant pure musical whistles through to harsh, grating rasping and chattering sounds. Also, the notes are less mellow, more penetrating than those of the Blackbird. They also mimic other species, such as curlew and cuckoo, sometimes remarkably well.

They sing from March to July, but often start earlier, sometimes practicing their songs or phrases in short, subdued bursts. They usually sing from perch in a tree from November to July.

Remember repetition. If it helps, think of Foghorn Leghorn, that cartoon rooster: "I'm a Song Thrush, I say, I'm a Song thrush, I say..."

Song Thrush 1 Song Thrush 2 Song Thrush 3 Song Thrush 4

Mistle Thrush

The Mistle Thrush's song is not fluty like the Blackbird's, neither is it as fluid, it is more hurried than the Blackbird's and of a similar volume. It is not repetitive like the Song Thrush. The song is loud and ringing song, but has a slightly shrill, dreamy quality. It is also rather monotonous with less variety than the other two thrushes, comprising several distinct notes to each phrase with a pause between phrases. The song itself is repeated, but not the phrases.

Mistle Thrushes sing from high perches, often at the tops of trees or rooftop aerials, from December to June. They often start singing long after the Blackbird and Song Thrush, late morning and afternoon.

I always imagined Mistle Thrush as a bird singing through "a gap in its front teeth". Alternatively, you may try imagining a hippy singing "Hey man, what's happenin'?"

Mistle Thrush 1 Mistle Thrush 2

References

Open University
Knutsford Ornithological Society
Virtual Bird


Last revision: 21 Feb 2015
Copyright © David Gains 1999-2017.
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