Wednesday, 23 March 2016

27 March 1880 - 'The Blackbird' by Harrison Weir

No English bird is better known and appreciated than the blackbird - ousel, or merle, as it is sometimes called. It is naturally of a very shy and timid nature, hiding amongst the thick foliage of evergreens, high grass, and weeds, or in the hedgerows, and then watching an opportunity to dart away into the nearest copse, making known its presence by its shrill alarm-note. Its food consists chiefly of wild fruit, berries, worms and insects. In an orchard it is a sad rogue, clearing off the fruit from cherry-trees, or current and gooseberry bushes, in a very short space of time. Nor is this the worst, from it has a bad habit of tasting pears and apples to a large extent, without confining itself  to any particular fruit, thereby spoiling a quantity, for you cannot preserve fruit after a hole, however small, has been picked in it.

In dry weather their depredation in fruit gardens is very serious. I have known nearly two dozen blackbirds in and about one tree in early morning. They are particularly fond of the berries of the mountain-ash, and those of the white thorn, also the holly in snowy weather. It is quite a mistake to suppose blackbirds eat slugs, and I have never known them when wild to eat snails. Taken altogether they are not so desirable in a garden as many imagine, and were it not for their delightfully melodious song I fear strong measures would be taken to get rid of them. But I prefer scaring them from any particular trees by scarlet worsted being laced about the branches, and a few pieces of tin, with feathers being hung here and there. Strawberries can be netted; also currants, raspberries, and gooseberries - but the net should be raised three feet above the plants, as the birds would rest upon it, and the net sinking with their weight, they would quickly put their heads through and enjoy the ripest of the fruit.

For keeping in a cage they are best brought up from the nest, and should be taken just as the feathers are showing beyond the quill part. The young may be reared with food made of oatmeal, with a little chopped beef and some sugar, but not much. As they grow older, stale buns mixed with bread-crumbs and beef cut up finely will serve to keep them in health. Now and then a piece of apple, pear, or cherry, or a few mountain ash berries for a change, will prove beneficial.

The cage should be large, and kept scrupulously clean, and a pan of soft water should be put in it every day, in which the bird might bathe, while water for drinking should be pure and fresh, not allowed to stand day after day.

It is most needful that the bottom of the cage be strewed with nice gravel, as swallowing grit and stones assists the digestion. In my opinion the best cage is the wicker one; it can be easily washed, and all insects that would otherwise be of much annoyance to the occupant thereby destroyed.

The blackbird may easily be caught by baiting a brick or other trap with fruit, such as cherries, plums or a ripe apple; but it is not well to catch them in summer, as they are then breeding, and their young would be left to starve in the nest. In the winter bait the trap with berries, bread and meat. Blackbirds when well taken care of will live in cages many years. I have heard of one fifteen years old.

Speckled, white and black birds - and white birds are not uncommon - and some beautifully-marked have been exhibited at the various shows. The notes of the blackbird is soft and melodious, being very rich and sweet at times. In its wild state it does not sing for long together, as it generally commences about the end of February and finishes at the beginning of June. As a rule birds only sing while they are nesting. In a cage the blackbird sings six or seven months in the year, or even more, but much depends on the food given to it.

Before closing this article, let me strongly impress on all those who keep birds in cages to look to their comfort and welfare themselves, every day. There is an old saying, "If you wish for a thing well done, do it yourself."

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