Wildlife writer Jane Adams is missing her early morning alarm call – but feels there may be signs of hope for mavis
Every year, around this time, the sound of a bird would pull me from sleep. Perched at the top of a neighbour’s rowan tree, its silhouette would gradually emerge. With head flung back, spiralling columns of condensing breath would rise from its beak, and I’d become lost in the phrases of its repeated song.
It was a song thrush.
Fifty years ago, its song would be heard all over Dorset (play the video above right with the sound ON to listen to a Dorset song thrush singing in my garden some time ago), but, like so many of our songbirds, its numbers have steeply declined by more than 50 per cent.
The last time I was woken by a song thrush was more than five years ago. Some people have blamed their decrease on sparrowhawks and magpies, but this doesn’t stack up. Research by the British Trust for Ornithology has found that over the last 30 years, the proportion of predated thrush nests has actually decreased. Thrushes are just as likely to have declined in areas where hawks and magpies are missing.
Sadly, human interference is the real culprit. We’ve taken away hedgerows, woods and wet ditches, increased drainage and tillage on the land and there are now fewer permanent pastures.
We’ve removed the food and the nesting sites which song thrushes need to survive.
A way back
Still, there is hope. By planting new woodlands, careful management of hedges and wildflower strips on farms, they – along with our other British songbirds – can thrive again. In some places where this land management has already been taking place, there are signs that song thrushes are making a tentative recovery.
We need to help them.
For centuries, this blackbird-sized brown bird with its spotted chest has been a part of our culture. Shakespeare and Chaucer called them mavis, but in more recent literature it’s probably better known from the poem by local lad, Thomas Hardy (see right).
Written at the end of the 19th century, The Darkling Thrush starts with a haunting, bare winter scene, full of hardship and sadness. It could have been written about the last few years we’ve had.
Then a song thrush sings.
As dusk fell tonight, a song thrush was singing in my neighbour’s garden.
Maybe Hardy’s darkling thrush can teach us something in 2023? Listening to, and being in, nature has a canny knack for helping our sense of wellbeing. So this February, try getting out into the countryside at dawn or dusk and listen for the hopeful song of a song thrush.
The Darkling Thrush
Thomas Hardy, 1900
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.