A History of Birds. Blackbird
The name blackbird has been in use since at least medieval times, but our Anglo-Saxon forebears preferred the term ouzel (pronounced ‘oozle’). For many centuries these two words were used side by side in books of natural history – ‘the blackbird or ouzel’ – but by the late nineteenth century it was blackbird that emerged as the dominant name.
In Scotland the bird was often known as the blackie and in certain areas of England the merle or colley, the latter probably because of its coal color. Interestingly, eighteenth-century versions of the seasonal song The Twelve Days of Christmas describe blackbirds being sent on the fourth day:
The fourth day of Christmas
My true love sent to me:
Four colley birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree.
Later adaptations seem to have changed ‘colley birds’ to the more widely understood ‘calling birds’.Another set of famous verses to feature the blackbird is the nursery rhyme Sing a Song for Sixpence , which was known in the eighteenth century but may have earlier origins:
Cover and illustr Cover and illustration from Randolph Caldecott’s Sing a Song for Sixpence , published about 1880
Sing a song for sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish
To set before the king.
The blackbird has inspired writers of more earnest works than nursery rhymes. Poets down the ages from Shakespeare and Spenser, to John Clare and Thomas Hardy have tried to capture something of the blackbird’s song and character. Tennyson wrote an entire poem called The Blackbird , which opens with these lines:
O blackbird! sing me something well:
While all the neighbours shoot thee round,
I keep smooth plats of fruitful ground,
Where thou may’st warble, eat and dwell.
The bird has also inspired musicians, with multiple tracks entitled Blackbird being released over the years from the likes of Paul McCartney, Nina Simone, Myles Kennedy and even The Wurzels to name a few. In terms of durability, one of the most well known of these songs is Bye Bye Blackbird . Originally written in the 1920s by American lyricist Mort Dixon, it has been covered by numerous artists and has become a classic. Some songs featuring the blackbird use the word symbolically to represent black people’s struggle for equality.
The British love of the blackbird led to it being kept as an inexpensive pet for many centuries, and it is mentioned as a caged bird in some medieval bestiaries. The strong and clear song of the male bird made it especially popular, yet some individuals were taught new tunes or even learned to speak a few words.In the early nineteenth century, books about caged birds still included the blackbird as a noted favourite with instruction that, being territorial, they required a large cage to themselves. The following instance of an especially long-lived pet blackbird was reported to the Belfast Commercial Chronicle in 1839:
Early nineteenth-century blackbird cage
There is at present in the possession of Mr John Spence, of Tullaghgarley, near Ballymena, a blackbird that has arrived at the wonderful age of twenty years and nearly eight months. It was taken by him from the nest when young, and ever since has enjoyed the very best of health. It still continues to sing, and that well. He is however, beginning to show symptoms of old age – his head is getting grey, and a number of white feathers are springing up on his neck and breast.
Good enough to eat?
Blackbirds were quite commonly eaten, although not baked alive in pies despite what the nursery rhyme suggests. Inexplicably, the eating of blackbirds was promoted as a treatment for dysentery or diarrhoea. On continental Europe, diners were keen to eat the birds after the grape harvest or if they had fed on myrtle or olives as these seemed to impart improved flavour to the meat.
There is little folklore, legend or symbolism attached to the blackbird in the UK. Yet the Christian Church was keen to exploit nature for symbolic purposes and two saints in particular have been associated with this bird. The first is St Benedict, who was tempted by the Devil in the form of a blackbird. The blackbird came ‘fluttering round about him and coming so near his face that he might have catched it in his hand’. This strange experience greatly disconcerted Benedict to the extent that his usually rigid focus on the work of God wavered, and he found himself sorely tempted by sexual desire. Yet the holy man did not succumb:
He stripped himself of his clothes, and casting himself upon a thicket of briars and thorns, there rolled his naked body so long that it was most pitifully rent, mangled and torn, and ran gore blood; and by this excessive and stinging pain he quenched the scorching fire which Satan had kindled in his members.
God was apparently so pleased with the saint’s resistance, that Benedict was never again tempted by sex for the rest of his life.
The second saint associated with the blackbird is from Ireland. Saint Kevin was a man who lived close to nature and one day while reaching his hands up to heaven in deep supplication, a blackbird is supposed to have landed on his outstretched palm and laid an egg there. Perhaps viewing this as a test of his devotion or at least unwilling to disturb the bird, Saint Kevin stayed in this position for days until the egg hatched. Hence many representations of this saint show him with a bird in his hand.
Early thirteenth-century depiction of Saint Kevinout and his blackbird.(Courtesy of the British Library illuminated manuscripts collection www.bl.uk)
The blackbird is not only popular in the UK. In Sweden it is the country’s national bird, having been voted that status in 1962 and re-affirmed by a second national poll in 2015. The nation of Kosovo in the Balkans means ‘of blackbirds’ and is an abbreviation for the area’s original name in Serbian kosovo polje (field of blackbirds).
In Italy, the Days of the Merla (or days of the hen blackbird) are said to be the coldest days of the year.The precise dates vary a little according to locality but are typically the last three days of January. According to legend, blackbirds were originally white, and during these three cold days they hid in chimneys to keep warm and so became permanently blackened by the soot and smoke.
Like some other well-loved European garden birds, the blackbird was exported to far-flung fresh territories during the nineteenth century. People emigrating to Australia and New Zealand, for example, wanted to feel at home in their new surroundings and the song of the blackbird was reassuringly familiar. Now the blackbird is a well-established bird in both countries.
A History of Birds by Simon Wills