Winter Thrushes: Identification
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
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Redwing and Fieldfare
These winter thrushes, with some few exceptions, do not breed in Britain, and only start to arrive in autumn. The birds migrate from continental Europe. They can often be found in mixed flocks together, so if you think you see a flock of for instance, redwing, it might be worth looking through all the birds to see if you can spot some random fieldfare.
The redwing is a slightly smaller size than a blackbird. First of all, let’s get past the rather useless name. The bird doesn’t have any red on it. Red was a word used in the naming of many creatures before we had the word “orange” in the English language. Hence Red Kites are orange, Red Squirrels are orange, and, because life is difficult and confusing, Red Campion flowers are pink.
If you are being generous, or using the Collins Bird Guide, the colour is described as “rusty red.” This colour appears on the underside of the wings mostly visible in flight, when the birds will almost certainly be silhouetted and black. The main part of this red you can see is along the side of the closed wings when the birds are wandering around, so more accurate name for this species would be “Orange Armpit”.
Picture from Pixabay by ifinnsson – Redwing
Regardless of the red/orange situation, the most noticeable thing is the white stripe that runs from the beak over the eye to the back of the head. In birds this eye stripe is known as a supercilium – which is an excellent word that should be said aloud at the start of every day.
I really struggle to tell apart redwing and fieldfare from their sound alone, so my selfish reason for writing this article is to cement it into my brain. Redwing communicate through high-pitched squeaking whistles. You can hear it on the RSPB website, along with the very Blackbird like sounds that it makes: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/redwing/
Here’s an ancient Celtic saying (that I certainly didn’t just make up) to help you remember:
If red on wing, then from it’s beaky,
A call will sound, so high and squeaky.
Fieldfare are closer in size to blackbirds. If you get a decent look at them in not too dim light conditions, I find the most distinctive feature is the slate grey head, which looks like they are wearing a hood. The bright yellow tint to the beak also shows up quite well. While fieldfare do have a supercilium, I find is not nearly as obvious as that of the redwing (the supercilium of which contrasts much more strongly with the redwing’s darker brown coloured head).
Picture by Phil Taylor - Fieldfare
The call of the fieldfare sounds like a rattle or cackle. You can hear recording of fieldfare on the RSPB website: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/fieldfare/
Ignore the high-pitched squeaking in the background, which I think is a skylark, as this recording was made in the month of March, in one of the fieldfare’s home territories: Denmark.
Once again, the almost certainly non-existent Celtic poet provides us with another rhyme:
Fieldfare all do like to prattle,
Their call sounds like an angry rattle…
Picture from Pixabay by torben7400 – Fieldfare
You can watch a video describing the differences between Redwing and Fieldfare in the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4hxUNvzmJU&feature=emb_logo
All of the birds featured in this session are quite partial to fruit, particularly apples. If we get an especially harsh winter, with frost or snow, it’s worth slicing up a couple of apples and putting them out on your lawn/yard if you have access to one, to see if you can tempt in the hungry birds.