By Patrick O’Sullivan
The mistle thrush may not look as Christmassy as the robin, but there is no doubt that it has Christmas credentials of its own. After all, the bird takes its name from its love of mistletoe berries, its Latin name Turdus viscivorus, generally translated as the thrush that devours mistletoe.
The berries of the mistletoe are very sticky, and when the thrush eats them, the seeds either pass through its gut, or stick to its bill. When the latter happens, the birds wipes the seeds onto a branch of a tree, where they germinate to produce new plants.
In Celtic myth, mistletoe was neither shrub nor tree: the fact that it did not grow on the ground defying definition and classification.
The mistle thrush is known in Irish as An Liatraisc, or An Smólach Mór the latter meaning the ‘big thrush’ which serves to distinguish it from its smaller counterpart the song thrush. As the name implies, it is the larger of our two resident thrushes, having brown upperparts and pale underparts with large dark spots: the white of the underwings seen to good effect in flight.
The mistle thrush is also given the name the ‘storm cock’ for it defiant singing in a gale, especially in the winter months.
It was on the edge of a wood on a fine summer’s day that I came across a pair of mistle thrushes giving loud and vociferous chase after a magpie, their scolding ‘churrs’ heard near and far. They are doughty defenders of the nest and so I pictured the large solid nest tucked away somewhere nearby, the weave of mosses and grasses with an inner core of mud, this is turn lined with finer grasses: the eggs marked with rich brown blotches and spots.
Such things were no more than a memory though as Christmas drew near again. It was then that a mistle thrush took a notion to guard the berry-laden holly tree in the yard, and claim it as his own. It was the loveliest thing to see the variegated holly tree, covered in berries: the vivid reds of the latter the perfect foil for the greens and creams of the leaves.
Every morning when I went into the yard, the mistle thrush was on duty: usually in the tree itself, sometimes on the hedge behind it, his carriage so confident, so proud, it was as if he were already making a statement of intent.
Whenever I came back from my walk, my big black labrador Sweep running before me, the sentry flew out of the holly, his flight across the yard made up of deep strong strokes, interspersed as they were with momentary pauses, all coming together to create a sense of wildness and freedom.
The mistle thrush’s fondness for guarding a berry-laden tree is known as ‘resource feeding,’ so that whenever a starling or a blackbird came too close, the intimidating ‘churrs’ were heard again. I don’t know if the starling had any real interest in the holly berries, or if it was simply being mischievous, but it sometimes perched on the hedge, or on top of the telephone pole by the road.
As for the orange-billed blackbird, he took off with cries of alarm the moment the mistle thrush appeared, but he was not without berries of his own: an old cotoneaster generously dabbled with orange and red at the bottom of the yard. The song thrush, meanwhile, sang to his heart’s content in the boughs of the old sycamore in the garden, his sweet repeated phrases carrying far in the stillness, lichens grey and ochre soft beneath his feet.
On sunny afternoons, the Persian cat took a notion to curl in a favourite spot under the holly tree, the tiltled sunbeams finding her out so that she looked for all the world as if she were caught in a spotlight. The mistle thrush scolded her now and then, but not with the fierceness that he seemed to reserve for blackbird or starling, one last orange bloom on the rose nearby.
As far back as the fourth century, Aristotle was already writing about the mistle thrush’s fondness for mistletoe, its liking for holly berries sometimes giving it the name the ‘holm thrush’.
I had seen mistle thrushes guarding holly trees in the grove before, but this was the very first time that one had lain claim to the tree in the yard. It was the loveliest thing to see him perched in the tree as Christmas drew nearer and nearer, the greens and creams and reds dabbled all around him still, a broad swathe of white swept across the high peaks of the Reeks beyond.
It was no great wonder that I could not resist a smile now and then, for it was in its way like a close encounter with nature right on my own doorstep: an encounter that not only gave me a glimpse of the bird’s undaunted spirit, but also made me rejoice again in the beauty of everyday things.
There was something wonderfully elemental in the thrush’s guarding of the tree, so that I could only be glad, so glad, that he had chosen my tree and my yard as his own.