Gone for a harsh winter's song

Cold winters and loss of pasture to new crops are hastening the decline of the song thrush, says Malcolm Smith

At one time it was instantly known for its distinctive medley of shrill and flute-like cadenzas. Not now. Instead, the more melodic, deeper tones of the blackbird ring out from the woods and gardens the length of Britain.

For the song thrush, once so familiar to our parents' generation, is in serious decline. There are, according to data compiled for the New Atlas of Breeding Birds, around 990,000 breeding pairs in Britain compared with around 4.4 million pairs of blackbirds. A human generation ago thrushes were more abundant than blackbirds.

The figure of 990,000 breeding pairs may sound like an awful lot of birds. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), however, has documented song thrush population changes - along with a plethora of other bird species as part of its Common Birds Census - and found a 64% decline in song thrush numbers on farmland between 1975 and 1994. In woodland, the thrush numbers fell by 34% between the same dates. The species is more common in the south and east of England than in the north and west.

BTO research has shown that whatever is doing for the song thrush is affecting the adults. Their breeding success - the number of eggs laid and young successfully reared - has not altered. The finger of suspicion has been pointed at slug and snail pellets, copious quantities of which are used on farmland and in our gardens. After all, song thrushes, unlike blackbirds, are particularly fond of these succulent creatures, especially in late summer and winter.

But slug and snail pellets are not a major factor. Song thrushes have been in decline for longer than pellets have been in use. So far, says the BTO's Richard Gregory, there is no evidence that pellets are directly implicated. "Detailed analysis of our census data implicates severe winter weather, to which song thrushes seem particularly vulnerable. They declined after the severe winter of 1962-63, a little in 1978-79 and again with the cold weather of 1990-91 - especially in the south-east. But the pattern isn't crystal clear. The steepest decline, between 1975 and 1978, preceded the cold of the 1978-79 winter when winters were relatively mild.

British song thrushes, unlike blackbirds, are partial migrants, many Scottish and northern English birds zipping off to milder Ireland for the winter. Some even leave the balmy south of England for France and Spain. So winter frosts don't offer a plausible answer either. Vulnerability to continental hunters has been ruled out because levels of hunting haven't increased, and the proportion of our song thrushes on the Continent isn't large.

Declines have been most severe on livestock farms where pasture has often been replaced in recent years by wheat and oil seed rape. Song thrushes favour woodland edges, breeding in the wood but feeding outside it in invertebrate-rich pastures. Loss of pasture has probably taken its toll.

Less intensive agriculture and more crop land set aside could see thrushes recovering somewhat over the next decade. But it is unlikely they will ever again compete in the birdsong charts with that garden success story, the blackbird.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'


Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

Life and Style

Company says data is only collected under 'temporary' identities that are discarded every 15 minutes

peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style

Some experiencing postnatal depression don't realise there is a problem. What can be done?

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Systems and Network Administrator

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leicester: We are recruiting for a Systems and ...

English Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Group: English as an Additional Langua...

Nursery assistants required in Cambridgeshire

£10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

History Teacher

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album