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Wildlife Garden blog

5 Posts tagged with the mistle_thrush tag

With the recent warm sunny weather here its hard to believe that it is officially autumn – but watching our surrounding shrubs and trees, their leaves and berries remind us that it has been here a while.


Join us this weekend for Hedgerow Harvest, a free family event with activities, crafts, guided tours and many other things to see and do. We'll be in the Wildlife Garden and Darwin Centre this Sunday 5 October between 12.00-17.00.


Larissa, in a berry mood, tells us more about our hedgerow bounty:


Here in the Wildlife Garden we have hedgerows marking some of the boundaries of the different British habitats in the garden. These hedges are managed for wildlife such as the blackbirds and wrens which nest in them and the mice and amphibians that take cover in them.


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One of our hedgerows in the Wildlife Garden.

© Jonathan Jackson

Hedgerows are an important feature of the British landscape and although figures from the Wildlife Trusts suggest hedgerows stretch around 450,000km at present, this is much lower than historic levels.


According to the RSPB, hedgerows provide nesting habitat for around 30 species of British birds. In fact 80% of British woodland bird species, 50% of British mammals and 30% of our butterflies make use of them either as a habitat, food source or cover (RSPB). Take a look at the RSPB website to discover more about hedgerows for wildlife.


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Butterflies such as the peacock (Aglais io) forage for nectar from the flowers in our hedgerows.

© Tony Buckle


Now we are moving into autumn and the leaves are beginning to change colour, the hedges usually fill with fruits and berries. However in July this year – almost two months earlier than previous years, we found ripe elderberries (Sambucus nigra) in the garden and the rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) trees were dripping with red berries. All of these fruits have gone already, which won’t be good news for the mistle thrush which visited to feed on our rowan berries up until January this year.


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Elderberries by our main pond in July this year. The blackbirds didn't take long to eat them all.

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Bright red rowan berries in July.

© Jonathan Jackson


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In comparison, this January the trees were still full with last year’s fruits, which attracted two mistle thrush to the garden from late autumn until January.


These early autumnal signs weren’t just a local occurrence either – the Woodland Trust had reports through their Nature's Calendar from across the country from July onwards. You can submit your own records on the Woodland Trust’s Nature’s calendar.

One of the great things about hedgerows is not just the benefits to wildlife, but the bounty of wild produce they can bring to your kitchen if you know where to look. This year and 2013 have been bumper years for fruit and some of us have taken advantage of this. August brambles (Rubus fruticosus agg.), a handful of crab apples (for natural pectin) and a leisurely walk resulted in a couple of jars of delicious bramble jam, not to mention the elderberry and bramble wine bubbling away in my conservatory at home. Unfortunately the wine takes a year or so before it is ready, but it’ll be a nice Christmas treat for next year!


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Brambles in August in the Wildlife Garden.

©Jonathan Jackson


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Bramble jam.

© Larissa Cooper



Add in a few crab apples to the bramble jam (or other jams and jellies) to add natural pectin to assist with the setting.

© Larissa Cooper


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Elderberry wine bubbling away. Fermentation has slowed but the flavour still needs to develop. We added in some brambles to sweeten the wine slightly.

©Larissa Cooper


My colleague Chris Raper in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity has been busy foraging too, having more luck than me at finding sloes (fruits from the blackthorn Prunus spinosa) and putting them to good use making sloe gin. 


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Plenty of sloes this year if you know where to find them.

© Chris Raper


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Sloe gin in the making.

© Chris Raper


If there were any rowan berries left some could be used to make rowan jelly, much like hawthorn (Cratageus monogyna) jelly, a foraged alternative to cranberry jelly for your roast dinner. Hazel (Corylus avellana) nuts are delicious toasted – if you can get there before the squirrels that is. Rosehips also make a delicious sweet jelly, and our hops donated by Meantime Brewery last year have done very well this year – beer anyone?!

One thing to remember though – when foraging, be sure to leave something for the hedgerow inhabitants as it is their supermarket after all!


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The hops in our hedgerow have almost taken over in some parts, but we shall be leaving them for wildlife and because they look so beautiful.

© Larissa Cooper


To find out more about hedges, and taste some hedgerow produce, Join us at our Hedgerow Harvest event this Sunday 5 October in the Wildlife Garden and Darwin Centre between 12.00-17.00.


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Some of the delicious produce made from hedgerow plant species.

© Photoshot, Natural History Museum



Hedgerow Harvest - join us this Sunday 5 October between 12.00-17.00.

You can also find out more about the biodiversity of hedgerows in the autumn edition of evolve magazine.


While some of us are head down searching for first flowers, others are alert to life higher up: Wildlife gardener, Daniel Osborne, who often spots some of the Wildlife Garden's less common sightings shares his winter observations:


“For those prepared to venture out in the cold, observing birds in winter has a charm all its own. While many of the enigmatic summer species will have migrated south, and none of the spring breeding displays or nesting behaviour will be in evidence, birds in winter are no less engaging.


There are still many species around. Blackbirds, robins, finches (including colourful flocks of goldfinches), tits, wrens, dunnocks and many corvids are common in gardens throughout winter. They are more or less non-migratory, but movement within these species does occur - from the colder north, and even from the countryside into cities.


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One of our resident robins (Erithacus rubecula)

© Mark Humphries


Some species, such as fieldfares and redwings, are encountered only in winter when they leave their summer breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Siberia. Redwings have been recorded in the Garden this year, as in previous years, and a pair of mistle thrush have chosen to make the Garden their home this winter, as reported in our December post.


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Redwing (Turdus iliacus) have been spotted in the Garden during the past month
© Phil Hurst


Due to the scarcity of food, many different species will flock together in winter feeding parties. Excellent viewing opportunities are afforded by the absence of foliage on the deciduous trees.


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A great tit (Parus major) in the Wildlife Garden

© Derek Adams


And birds are increasingly willing to visit garden bird feeders.


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European greenfinch (Carduelis chloris) and blue tit (Parus caeruleus) on our garden bird feeder

© Derek Adams


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Our resident moorhens (Gallinula chloropis) ensure nothing is left to waste below the feeders...

© Derek Adams


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... Though some can get left behind.

© Mark Humphries



The feeders in the Garden are usually in regular need of refilling during the winter months, although not too much this winter so far. The relatively mild temperatures appear to be offering a continued availability of natural food, and it is interesting to note that the blackbirds only recently started feeding on the rowan berries that they usually pluck in August with precise bursts of hummingbird-like hovering.


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Blackbirds (Turdus merula) feed off rowan berries most summers ... but not last summer

© Derek Adams


Blackbirds are seen frequently at all times of year in the Garden. They are common, and easily identified, the males a uniform black with a bright orange bill and eye, the females a diffuse brown as seen above and further below.


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Male blackbird in the Wildlife Garden
© Mark Humphries


They have the habit of cackling noisily when they take off and slowly bringing their tails up to the vertical when they land, making them identifiable even at distance.


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Female blackbird
© Derek Adams


The males are territorial and will often proclaim their territory from the same branch. It's my estimate that the Garden is the site of at least three different male blackbird territories. One male has a spot in the apple tree in the orchard area from which he can regularly be heard singing. At this time of year they will be re-establishing their territories and, like all birds, looking for enough food to survive.


Winter is undoubtedly a time of great hardship for birds. Severe or extended cold has disastrous effects on bird numbers. But it can also be a time of unrivaled avian spectacle. Starling murmurations are among the most celebrated natural phenomena and reach a peak during winter, when the birds roost most communally.


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Common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) - sadly uncommon in the Wildlife Garden - our last sighting was in 2009

© Tim Munsey


Some parts of Britain entertain huge influxes of swans and geese. Waders and wildfowl flock in huge numbers on the coastlines. And for me, in London, there is always the hope of seeing, in my opinion, the most beautiful of birds, waxwings.”


Thank you Daniel!


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A waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) - one that is definitely on our Garden wish-list!

© Phil Hurst 


We'll be sharing more of our bird sightings with you later in the year



The berry season has been spectacular this year, and continues, in green (ivy), in black (tutsan and privet), and more seasonally, in many shades of red and orange. Clusters of red fruit remain on our rowan trees and it’s easy to spot feeding birds within the bare branches. This morning I watched 2 plump mistle thrushes gorge themselves while blackbirds fed on a neighbouring tree - so no surprise that we have so many rowan seedlings throughout the garden.


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A morning feast - mistle thrush and blackbird on neighbouring rowans.


Butcher's-broom (Ruscus aculeatus) brightens dark corners of woodland together with the maligned stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) - it doesn't smell bad!.


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Butcher's-broom (Ruscus aculeatus).

Derek Adams


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Stinking Iris (Iris foetidissima).
Derek Adams


Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) dangles its ripe red berries over fences and through hedges where a few bruised rose-hips and the occasional pink of an unripe blackberry can also be found. But it is the holly (Ilex aquifolium) that steals the show; its scarlet berries looking luscious amongst the dark shiny leaves.

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A holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) in the Wildlife Garden.

Jonathan Jackson


Holly is a rich source of food for birds and crucially will be available when most other berries have been exhausted. Blackbird, mistle thrush and redwing - all members of the family Turdidae (the thrushes) - will compete with woodpigeon and squirrels for the fruit. Our Christmas card icon, the robin, very occasionally feeds on these berries too.


Holly berries are resistant to the extreme cold and stay well preserved for several months, but another reason for their longevity is the mistle thrush.  Barbara and John Snow who spent years studying the ecological interaction between birds and berries*, observed that some holly trees are fiercely defended by mistle thrush.


By preventing other birds from feeding on the fruit, mistle thrushes can conserve the berries as a long-term food supply which may last all winter through to spring. And as they suggest, this conservation of hollies by mistle thrushes is one of the reasons there are always holly berries around on some trees for our festive decorations. 

Roy Vickery takes up the seasonal story of holly:

“Although it seems that in earlier times a variety of evergreens were used in Christmas decorations, for many years red-berried holly was the most important one. Indeed, in some parts of  England it was known simply as ‘Christmas’. Before computer-generated posters became common, holly leaves, which even artists with few skills could draw, inevitably adorned notices announcing Christmas events.

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Hedge holly in the Wildlife Garden.

Jonathan Jackson


Although growing holly trees were usually considered to be protective, and therefore should not be cut down, it was sometimes considered unlucky to bring branches of it indoors before Christmas Eve. There are even occasional records of holly being considered inauspicious during the Christmas period.


However, most people tried to get sprigs of holly, with its bright red berries and dark green glossy leaves, to decorate their homes. Thus the gathering of holly provided a useful supplementary income for farmers who had trees growing on their land, and gypsies who gathered it wherever they could. In 1980 it was estimated that holly sold at Christmas came equally from these two sources. In some areas, notably Cornwall, Christmas trees were traditionally hollies rather than the more usual conifer trees.


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More holly in our garden.

Jonathan Jackson


In recent years holly seems to have become much less popular, at least in London. Little was available for sale in 2012, although it appears to have made something of a come-back in 2013. Presumably holly, which tends to soon dry up and lose its leaves in warm conditions is unsuited for display in centrally heated homes, although holly wreaths, usually of natural leaves and wired-on artificial berries, are still commonly produced for decorating graves and attaching to front doors.


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Christmas wreath on the door of the Wildlife Garden shed, made by Larissa from willow stems, yew, juniper and holly - nothing artificial here!


To a certain extent more easily manageable poinsettias and stems of the deciduous North American holly, known as winterberry (Ilex verticillata), have replaced the hard to arrange holly twigs which were once sought in British hedgerows.

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) on sale this weekend in a market in Kent.


In the past, outside the Christmas season, chilblains were cured by beating with holly twigs until they bled, branches were pulled down chimneys to clear them of soot, bird-lime used for trapping small birds was extracted from its bark, and an abundance of its berries were believed to foretell a severe winter.”


Partly down to the mistle thrush?


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Winter holly in the Wildlife Garden in 2003.

Derek Adams


* Snow, B and J. 1988. Birds and Berries. T & AD Poyser


Roy Vickery, botanist and Museum Scientific Associate and longtime ‘friend’ of the Wildlife Garden, has been collecting plant stories for many years. Roy tells us more about mistletoe myths:


“Pliny the Elder in the first century A.D. described druids in France cutting mistletoe from oak trees in a ritual which involved golden sickles, dressing in white cloaks, slaughtering white bulls.  Because of this, mistletoe was considered to be a pagan plant and banned from churches.”


4 LowRes_Mistletoe_close-up_JBRIGGScopyright+(Custom).jpgThe distinctive white berries of mistletoe (Viscum album)


But what is the origin of our seasonal fascination for this plant?


“Mistletoe was associated with Christmas since the mid-17th Century. By the 19th Century this association was well established, and people who had mistletoe-bearing trees on their land were bothered by people who raided them. In 1876 it was recorded that one Lincolnshire landowner hired 14 'watchers' each year to protect the mistletoe in her park.


“Kissing under the mistletoe seems to be a tradition which originated in the British Isles, but it does not appear to be an ancient one. It seems that it developed from the kissing bough which decorated homes in medieval times. This consisted of a bunch of evergreens, or a number of intersecting hoops covered in evergreens, which was hung from the ceiling, and under which people kissed. At sometime, probably in the late 18th or early 19th Century, mistletoe became an important component of these boughs, and eventually, by the mid-19th Century, the other greenery seems to have become of secondary importance, with the mistletoe becoming essential. Certainly, as numerous illustrations show, the association of kissing and mistletoe was well established by Victorian times.


“The situation is complicated by the fact that in some areas there were decorations known as 'mistletoe boughs' which appear to be identical to the kissing boughs and contained no mistletoe.


“It is sometimes said that a berry should be removed every time anyone kisses under the mistletoe.


“There are various beliefs about what should be done with mistletoe once Christmas has passed. In some areas some was kept indoors throughout the year to ensure happiness, love, food and money throughout the year. In other places, Christmas mistletoe was burnt under the pancake pan on Shrove Tuesday.


“Mistletoe doesn't seem to have been much used in folk medicine. The only remedy which I've collected is from Somerset, where it was remembered that a vile-tasting tea, made from mistletoe which grew on hawthorn, was used to treat measles. Other people have collected information on mistletoe being used to treat hysteria in Herefordshire and prevent strokes in Essex.”


5 mtoe_poplars_roadside_v2_jbriggs+(Custom).jpgMistletoe on poplars bordering a road (Jonathan Briggs)


In the meantime we are watching out for the mistletoe plant dispersers. Mistle thrush is a rare visitor to the Wildlife Garden but the blackcap is now more commonly seen - and has been observed in the garden throughout 2012.


Posted on behalf of Caroline who is currently on annual leave.


Since the beginning of the month great bunches of mistletoe (Viscum album) have been on sale in green grocers throughout the country and here - close to the Museum in South Kensington - is no exception.


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James McKay presents one of his mistletoe bunches from his shop in South Kensington


In common with many others, I’ve always been fascinated by this curious plant and was pleased to find it growing on lime trees across the fields from where I once lived in Kent. Until then I had only seen mistletoe growing in northern France - again, probably on lime trees.

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Mistletoe (the 'globes' of green among the branches) growing on Lime. Image: Jonathan Briggs

Mistletoe is an evergreen, semi-parasitic plant absorbing water and nutrients from host trees. It is spread by several bird species, including of course the mistle thrush.  Mistle thrushes swallow the whole berry and the sticky seeds pass through their gut. The excreted seeds, retaining their stickiness, fall and often stick to branches of the host tree where the seeds may germinate.


mistle-thrush-creative-commons-BY-NC-SA-2-jsutcliffe.jpgMistle thrush. Image: jsutcliffe/Flickr

Creative Commons licence BY-NC-SA 2.0


Blackcaps are also rather partial to mistletoe but first separate the seed from the white flesh, leaving the viscous seed on the host branch, before eating the fruit. Mistletoe has a particular affinity for apple, lime, hawthorn and

poplar in relatively open habitats, such as in orchards, parks and gardens.


black-cap-edwyn-anderton-creative-commons-by-nc-sa-2.jpgMale blackcap. Image: Edwyn Anderton/Flickr

Creative Commons licence BY-NC-SA 2.0


Apart from the local green grocer, there is no nearby source of these white berries for birds to spread. My own attempts at propagating mistletoe seeds on our apple trees in the Wildlife Garden failed - so when Jonathan Briggs of Mistletoe Matters offered to introduce mistletoe to some of our trees, we welcomed the suggestion.


Jonathan planted seeds on branches of two apple trees, an old ornamental hawthorn and willow in April 2009. The seeds successfully germinated on several trees and managed to survive on the apple and willow.


Jonathan Briggs explains his reasons for introducing mistletoe to the garden:


“The mistletoe planting in the Museum’s Wildlife garden was part of a programme of mistletoe plantings in selected London locations linked to the original Greater London Biodiversity Action Plan. Mistletoe was included in that on the basis of its rarity (in the London area), ease of monitoring and cultural significance. 


“Other planting sites included Kew, Chelsea Physic Garden, Buckingham Palace Garden and Down House (Darwin's place - he admired mistletoe's adaptations). Key existing populations in the London area are largely around Hampton Court where it has been recorded for over 200 years on the famous limes, and in the opposite corner of London in Enfield where there is much in the Middleton House/Forty Hall area.


“Since the London project there has been increasing evidence that mistletoe may be becoming more common anyway in eastern counties - perhaps due to climate change, perhaps due to increased spread from more over-wintering blackcaps or perhaps a combination of both. Spread from tree to tree is increasing around Hampton Court and in Essex.


“At the same time, over in the SW Midlands which are better suited to mistletoe climatically, there is continuing loss, in biomass terms, of mistletoe in old apple orchards - which are in decline. These orchards are one of its favourite habitats, so the loss of the orchards inevitably leads to less mistletoe. It does not, however, mean mistletoe is threatened - it is still thriving in other habitats, so it is only quantity that is reducing.


“Actually, in some orchards, mistletoe quantity is increasing, as the trees have become unmanaged and the mistletoe allowed to overgrow them. This is only temporary however as the trees involved are mostly old, and the overgrowth of mistletoe will accelerate their death - so this 'glut' in some orchards will be gone in a few years. A survey, the 'Mistletoe League' is collecting information on attitudes to mistletoe management in fruit trees (in both orchards and gardens) - do take part if you have mistletoe on fruit trees, all information is useful.


“If you want to try growing your own there are detailed instructions on the Mistletoe Pages website. Mistletoe is a parasite and will affect the branch it is growing on - but it won't harm the whole tree unless allowed to take over. Some pruning every winter will prevent that happening!”


... it will be sometime before our delicate mistletoe threatens its host trees:


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A healthy young plant on apple (Malus domestica) ‘Brownlees Russet’ in the Museum’s Wildlife Garden. Image: Jonathan Jackson


These fresh green and healthy-looking plants appear new and shiny on the otherwise bare and wintry branches and perhaps this is why mistletoe was thought to symbolise new life at the winter solstice - just one of many beliefs associated with this enigmatic plant.