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Blackbird from a willow sings:
Tiny beak with voice that rings.
Yellow bill, like coal his coat,
Merry music from his throat.
- Anonymous Irish monk, 9th Century1
The monk who jotted that poem in the margin of a Bible he was illuminating probably lived in a very different world from ours, but the bird he was describing is the same: the blackbird - a small black bird with a yellow beak, standing on a branch and singing.
A birdy with a yellow bill
Hopped upon the window sill.
Cocked his shining eye and said
'Ain't you shamed, you sleepy head?'
- Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child's Garden of Verses
The blackbird is a small bird, about 25cm (10 inches) from beak to tail. The male is black, with a yellow beak and a yellow ring around each eye. The female is a slightly reddish-brown all over; very faint speckled markings may be visible.
Blackbirds are members of the the thrush family, which explains their scientific name Turdus Merula (Merle Thrush). The young blackbird has the characteristic markings of a thrush, the speckled brown breast feathers. These markings fade as the bird matures. A young male develops the black plumage first and the yellow bill and eye-rings later on.
The habitat of the blackbird is woodlands and gardens. It stays close to the ground and hunts for worms and insects on the ground, as well as eating berries from bushes in the autumn and winter.
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 began to sing.
Wasn't that a tasty dish to set before the king?
- Traditional Nursery Rhyme
Blackbirds, like many woodland birds, space themselves out so that each breeding pair of birds works a small area without encroaching on the next pair. In order to attain this separation, the birds need to alert each other to where they are and they do this by singing loudly. The blackbird has one of the most musical of voices of any bird and has a whole range of different sounds it uses for different situations, with meanings like 'Here I am, keep away' and 'Danger, danger'. It is the cock bird that does the singing while the hen quietly blends into the foliage.
Of course, if an artificial and plentiful source of food such as a bird-feeder is provided by humans, the separation of birds is disrupted as the birds will compete to 'own' the bird-feeder, occasionally even fighting.
Blackbirds are found throughout the temperate parts of Europe and Asia, in North Africa and also in Australia and New Zealand. They are not found in the Americas, so the English-speaking settlers of the New World re-used the name 'blackbird' for the unrelated family Icteridae. These are discussed later.
Blackbirds in Folklore
Blackbirds are the subject of many traditions and superstitions, many of them contradictory. A few of these are listed here.
Blackbirds make their nests in trees from moss, grass and hair. A European tradition says that if human hair is used, the unfortunate unknowing donor will continue to suffer from headaches and possibly even boils and skin complaints until the nest is destroyed, so old hair should be disposed of carefully. A blackbird nesting near the house is seen to be a harbinger of good fortune.
In England and the US, it is said that a young girl is able to tell what sort of man she will marry by the first bird she sees on St Valentine's Day (14 February). If it is a blackbird, she will marry a clergyman. If she sees a cock and hen together, she will marry the next year.
The beautiful song of the blackbird makes it a symbol of temptations, especially sexual ones. The devil once took on the shape of a blackbird and flew into St Benedict's face, thereby causing him to be troubled by an intense desire for a beautiful girl he had once seen. In order to save himself, the saint tore off his clothes and jumped into a thorn bush. This painful act is said to have freed him from sexual temptations for the rest of his life.
Like the crow and the raven, the blackbird is often considered a bad omen. Dreaming of a blackbird may be a sign of misfortune for you in the coming weeks. It also means you lack motivation and that you are not utilising your full potential. However, the sight of two blackbirds sitting together is a symbol of peace and a good omen. Dreaming of a flying blackbird is said to bring good fortune.
What's not a Blackbird
There are plenty of birds that are black but are not blackbirds. In the Old World, the most common are the members of the crow family, but these are all much bigger than blackbirds. They haven't got the yellow beak or eye-rings. They tend to gang together in groups whereas the blackbird works alone. Crows are also famous for their harsh, croaking voices.
Starlings are slightly smaller than blackbirds, and are black - however, they too do not have the yellow beak or eye-rings, and on close examination are speckled rather than uniformly black. Starlings almost always flock together in huge numbers.
One bird which does look like the blackbird is the hill mynah or grackle of Southern Asia, with black plumage and an orange beak. It has orange legs which distinguish it from the blackbird, but the two inhabit different parts of the world, so they are unlikely to be confused.
In the New World, the name blackbird is used for the family of Icterids (Icteridae) which includes the red-winged blackbird, the red-breasted blackbird, the military blackbirds as well as the all-black rusty blackbird and brewer's blackbird. Icterids are found only in the Americas.
Int én gaires asin t-shail;
álainn guilbnén as glan gair:
rinn binn buide fir duib druin:
cas cor cuirther, guth ind luin.