I'm often asked if I have a favourite bird, to which I normally say "The last one I saw". While that is often true, I do admit to having a lingering soft spot for Redwings and Fieldfares.
For someone like me, born and brought up in the countryside of the English Midland shires, these were birds that had a tangible mystique about them. Completely absent all summer, there is then that point in October when loose flocks of these thrushes appear, moving purposely across the landscape during daylight hours. It is so astonishing to thing that they are fresh in from Scandinavia, having crossed the North Sea maybe only hours before.
The Fieldfares announce the flocks with their exuberant 'chak chak' calls, and then on autumn nights if you head outside after dark, you hear the Redwings continuing to pass over, their thin high 'seeeeeh' calls emerging as if from the stars.
Now that I'm on the south coast, I generally don't get to see that daytime spectacle, although I do still hear some night-time Redwings as they pass over. Instead, what I must hope is that fog or harsh weather will force them over the South Downs and into my garden to feast on berries. Both species are so dapper in appearance, the Fieldfares with grey heads, chestnutty backs and chevron markings on their sides...
...and the Redwings with their bold creamy stripe above the eye and reddish feathering on the flanks either side of their densely streaked breast.
My love of them, and my desire to help them, means that ensuring my garden is rich in berry-bearing shrubs and fruit-laden trees is a top priority aims. So which berries do these winter wanderers most enjoy?
Well, if they have the chance they love to gorge on Sorbus berries, especially the native Rowan (Mountain Ash). However, these tend to get stripped very quickly once they ripen by resident Blackbirds, meaning few are left by the time the Redwings and Fieldfares arrive, so the skill is in also growing those fruit which ripen late.
Good options include Crab Apple, whether the native tree or one of the many cultivars such as Golden Hornet or Evereste (below, on a waist-high tree I only planted last year).
A fascinating study was done by Barbara and David Snow in the 1980s, and they found that Fieldfares fed mostly on haws (the berries of Hawthorn), rose hips, and Ivy and Holly berries. For Redwing, Holly and Hawthorn were the preferred berries, but a study in Scotland pointed to the value of Rowan berries early in the winter, and Whitebeam was important in some areas.
Well, the rose hips are certainly thick on the branches this autumn:
I grow several single-flowered climbing varieties that bear a range of different sized hips - Redwings can only eat small hips whole, and would have to pick at the larger ones which isn't as energy-efficient for them. Rosa 'Frances E Lester' is particularly good, but my favourite is Rosa helenae, which has great trusses of small, slightly orangey fruit.
In contrast, my Rosa Seagull may be a mass of single flowers in summer but is very shy when it comes to hip production, so you do have to pick your roses well.
Holly is certainly an important food source in my gardens, but in a real cold snap, especially with snow, Redwings and Fieldfares will take what they can find. Here is a Fieldfare I photgraphed feeding on the tough fruits of the Handkerchief Tree, Davidia involucrata.
Ornamental rowans can also be good, especially those I find with pink or white berries, as they often hold onto the fruit well into winter. Sorbus 'Joseph Rock' and Sorbus vilmorinii I find especially good.
But if all else fails, the one thing you can turn to that they are guaranteed to love are windfall apples, laid out on the lawn.
So if you have a lack of berry-rich bushes in the garden, add one (or two or more). The sooner the better - with trees and shrubs, the quicker they go in, the quicker they get to maturity, so I always say not to dally but act instead.
And if the weather does turn bad, then cut in half some old apples and prepare yourself for winter thrush heaven.
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