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News from Britain and Ireland

Glimpses of Eden
14 November 2013 by Jonathan Tulloch

When the sun suddenly came out, I realised that one of the winter thrushes feeding in the field had a large red patch under its wing. Medium vermilion, an artist might call it. Something frightened the flock and they lifted. Now I saw that a good half of them had the distinctive colouration. They were redwings recently arrived from Scandinavia. More and more of the winter thrushes flew up until the sky was full of flap and whirr, chirrup and cheep. The rest of the flock were fieldfares, also from across the North Sea, here too for our unfrozen fields.

Both species of winter thrush often mix when they reach our warmer climes, but even if you couldn’t see them, you might still separate them by ear alone. The larger fieldfare has the far larger voice, a chuckling, almost hectoring ­chatter; the redwing’s call by contrast is a ­soulful piping.

It’s this wistful note that must have led to redwings being called swine pipe, an old name rising from the similarity of their call to the sounds of the herder’s pipe calling in their pigs from their forage. Connoisseurs of the great symphony of birds, listen out at night for redwing flocks overhead, a music heard even deep in the city. The windle thrush is another old name for the species, which may have come from their habit of arriving among us on the easterly winds.


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