Thrashing out the different thrushes
Our most familiar thrush must be that firm garden favourite, the blackbird, and it’s actually the only UK thrush that isn’t red listed.
The two you’re most likely to mix up, however, are of the more speckled variety: the song thrush and the mistle thrush.
Song thrush, early morning wake-up call
- Medium-sized birds, slightly smaller than a blackbird
- Slim build
- Tawny brown backs, creamy white and buff speckled front
- Darker cheeks
- Quite timid
As their name suggests, song thrushes have a very distinctive song. They start singing in late winter and continue right through into June or July. They’re also one of the earliest birds to start singing in the morning, getting going at around 3am, and then singing again at dusk. The song is loud and very clear, but varies from bird to bird. It’s usually a series of repeated phrases sung one after the other.
In the spring and summer, song thrushes can often be seen on the ground looking for worms and beetles. They’re famous for their habit of bashing snails on an ‘anvil’ to crack the shells, so if you find fragments of snail shells gathered near a large stone in your garden, it probably means there’s a song thrush around. Their movements are quite blackbird-like, and they have a habit of standing quite upright and cocking their heads. They’re strong fliers and like to sing high up on prominent branches.
They breed quite early in spring, sometimes starting in March, and build their cup-shaped nest in trees close to the trunk. Both parents take care of the chicks, and they sometimes have a second brood.
Where to look
Song thrushes are less common than they once were but are still regulars as both garden visitors and residents across the UK. They can also be seen in parks, woodland and farmland hedgerows, anywhere with trees and bushes where they can search out invertebrates in the summer and fruit and berries in winter. They’ll happily take garden offerings of bruised apples and mealworms, but as they’re timid, you’ll often see them being bullied away by blackbirds and other members of the thrush family. Some are migratory, but many of our song thrushes hold onto the same territories over the winter, so can be seen year-round.
Mistle thrush: mystical storm bird
- Medium-sized birds, they’re our largest thrush
- Chunky and pot-bellied
- Tawny brown and grey backs with a creamy white speckled front
- Whiteish cheeks
- Bold and bullish
The song of the mistle thrush is somewhere between a song thrush and a blackbird, with repeated phrases worked into more of an ongoing melody that stops and starts. It’s more melancholy and slurred than a blackbird, almost drunk-sounding, and louder, and they have a habit of singing in all-weathers, which is where their old name of ‘stormcock’ comes from. Their call is a very distinctive loud rattle, like a football rattle.
Mistle thrushes get their name from the mystical mistletoe, the berries of which are one of their favourite foods. They tend to be more common in areas with mistletoe, but they’ll also happily eat holly and rowan berries. They’re aggressive and are often very noticeable when they’re defending a good source of food, flying at other birds and giving their loud rattling call. At other times, they can be quite secretive and hard to see. Like song thrushes, they spend a lot of the spring and summer on the ground looking for invertebrates, and with their typical thrush hops, upright stance and other movements, this is when they’re probably hardest to tell apart, particularly from behind.
Mistle thrushes start nesting even earlier than song thrushes, sometimes in February! They build a cup-shaped nest, often in the fork of a tree, and both parents will look after the chicks. They sometimes have a second brood later in the year, and will aggressively defend their nests from predators.
Where to look
Mistle thrushes are widespread in the UK, but as they prefer areas with big trees and short grass during the breeding season, they’re less likely than song thrushes to nest in small gardens. During the autumn, they tend to move out into the countryside looking for berries, but you’ll also see (and hear) them in urban parks, sometimes even in small flocks. In harsh weather, they can sometimes be tempted into gardens with apples.
Other UK thrushes
Only a small number of redwings nest in the UK, but large flocks migrate here each winter from Scandinavia and Iceland. In the autumn, they’re more of a rural bird, and groups can be seen feeding on hawthorn and rowan berries in hedgerows and on the edge of woodland. As the winter progresses, and particularly in harsh weather, they will move into towns and cities, and can be spotted with other thrushes in gardens. They’re easy to confuse with song thrushes, but look out for the ‘red wing’ – which is actually a red patch underneath the wing – and the distinctive white stripe over the eye. You’re also unlikely to see them on their own. Their call is a simple ‘peep’ which can sometimes be heard in the dark while they’re migrating. If you’re lucky, you might hear them singing something called ‘sub-song’, which is like a practice song for later in the spring.
You might think that there’s no way you could mis-identify a blackbird, but the juveniles in particular can share some colour characteristics with other thrushes. They’re also a similar size and shape and move in a similar manner, so from a distance, and looking at the back of the bird, mistakes can happen. Try to get a good look at the chest, because they never have the bold speckled markings of other thrush species.
Like the redwing, fieldfares are winter visitors and only a sporadic breeder in the UK. They’re also quite similar in their habits, arriving in the autumn and feeding out in the countryside on berries and windfall fruits. They will move into gardens as the winter progresses, particularly if there’s snow or other severe weather and you’re most likely to see them if you have berry trees or put out apples, usually in flocks but also occasionally as single birds. They’re quite a large, aggressive species, and can spend a lot of their time driving other birds away from food. They’re most similar to mistle thrushes, but they have very distinctive light-grey heads with chocolate and grey backs. Their call is similar too, but it’s a less harsh chuckle rather than a rattle.
Just to complete the family, ring ouzels are the rarest thrushes found in the UK. You’d be super-lucky to see one as they’re only found in limited locations and in small numbers. They’re similar to blackbirds, but with a distinctive white mark on their throats.
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