“Above all the birds of winter, the frosty feldefares”: so says Mark Cocker, citing Chaucer. And it’s true: if ever a bird was associated with winter it is the Fieldfare. Once the Rowan berries in Scandinavia are exhausted, it migrates south. In their fondness for these bright red fruits and others like it, they have a festival air about them, but not I think the Christmas kind: they are more like heralds of the Yule season, the pagan festival of the winter solstice. Fieldfares are most at home in the darkest days of winter, shadowing the turn of the year.
Fieldfares gather in large flocks on open land, very often in company with Redwings: each is a member of the thrush family and shares the unhappy genus name Turdus. A more attractive and much older name for the fieldfare is Fealu Fōr, an Anglo-Saxon term meaning fallow farer. They certainly are at home on land that is, albeit nowadays for an increasingly short while, fallow, at rest while the winter storms blow themselves out.
Or not, as the case might be. Once again we seem to be having mild weather and, as yet, there have been no days of high winds to blow the leaves off the trees. All is quiet; and with the trees in full autumnal colour quite spectacular. It’s lovely, but I do miss a good autumn blow. The fieldfares have returned to what might seem to them a heatwave.
Fieldfares gather in large flocks, which can number up to a thousand, though more likely less than a hundred. They are a common sight in the countryside, riding upon the wind, perched on the very tops of trees and hedgerows, chins up, or else marching in unison across open ground, each bird facing the same way, like well drilled soldiers. They are nowhere near as happy in the company of humans as their other cousins the blackbirds and song thrushes.
Perhaps they’ve learned something. Thrushes make good eating, and once were common fare. The rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye / Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,” is no empty rhyme. Birds were sometimes served in pies: the trick was to bake a large piecrust with a hole in the bottom, filled with flour and sealed. Once cooked, the flour was drained, live birds stuffed inside, and the pie resealed before being cut open again, thus releasing the birds, no doubt to the consternation and merriment of the guests. Oh how we laughed!
If that were the sort of meal the gentry thought amusing, common folk would often make do with thrushes caught in the bushes, skinned and baked. The price of the birds was regulated by statute, rising to a shilling a dozen in 1633. They apparently made good eating, though I for one have no wish to try one. In some parts of southern Europe they are still widely trapped or shot and eaten.
In this poem John Clare mentions the fieldfare in the “whistling thorn”, roving among the fields and enclosures, for which he uses the Anglo-Saxon word, “closen”. The poem draws upon the richness of the Cambridgeshire landscape of the time: Clare gives it order and vitality.
Emmonsail’s Heath In Winter
I love to see the old heath’s withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps its melancholy wing,
An oddling crow in idle motion swing
On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gypsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread;
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the haw round fields and closen rove,
And coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove,
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.
(Bumbarrels are long-tailed tits).