Yes, that’s right, not ‘four calling birds’ which most versions of ‘ The Twelve Days of Christmas ’ have, but four collie (or colly) birds. Collie merely means black, as in colliery, and it could be said therefore that, in the Black Country at least, the blackbird should challenge the robins’ Christmas monopoly.
There are about 5 million breeding pairs of blackbirds in this country, and by Christmas they will have been joined by up to five million individuals from Scandinavia and northern Europe. (The species is the national bird of Sweden.) They arrive with their fieldfare and redwing cousins, to escape the worst of the winter weather, and to feast on hawthorn and other berries in our parks, gardens and hedgerows. You may have a resident blackbird or two, but in reality you could be seeing different individuals passing through your garden all the time.
As a type of thrush Blackbirds are related to song and mistle thrushes, ring ouzels, black redstarts and nightingales. They are equally at home in town or country, and are native to Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia. They have also settled down in places we have introduced them, including the Falkland Islands, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and the Americas. They also move themselves around, although they are very flexible about migration. Some populations stay put, others abandon their summer homes for warmer places, and some split themselves between these two options. More urban birds sit out the winter than rural birds, because towns and cities are warmer than the surrounding countryside.
Blackbirds were familiar enough in medieval times to star as living ingredients beneath pie crusts, as embodied in the nursery rhyme ‘ Sing a Song of Sixpence ’. This was one of many novelties and entertainments which punctuated the aristocracy’s grand banquets.
Blackbirds are not just for Christmas though, they are a bird for all seasons. We sing about them now, and they provide life and movement in our wintery gardens. Their low flight and noisy alarm call when disturbed is very characteristic. In the spring they are amongst the sweetest singers, as befits their membership of the thrush clan. In the summer they will often nest close to our houses and outbuildings, and all year they will act as free garden pest controllers.