Blackbirds, often found in yards and gardens across North America, are just as common in Europe. Our French garden exert Mike Alexander gives a little background on the feathered musicians.
When gardening in Europe the chances are that you will be closely followed by one or two blackbirds (Terdus merula), known in France as merle. These birds are a wonderful companion in the garden as they are even more fond of eating snails than my French in-laws are—they have also been known for making a meal of fruits, vegetables and worms.
There are an estimated 40 million or more mating pairs across Europe and they generally stay with their companions for life. Males are jet black with bright orange beaks and an orange ring around the eye. This time of year, as they prepare for the breeding season, the orange of his beak becomes more pronounced and he spends a lot of his time chasing rivals away from his territory. The blander looking female tends not to get involved in these little squabbles; as the male goes about his macho posturing, she just sighs, shrugs and seeks out the next snail snack.
Unlike so many of natures creatures, which have been steam rolled by man’s constant expansion of their territory, the blackbird has thrived in urban environments, which are now home to ten times number that live in their native forest habitat.
Until recently, blackbirds were regarded as food for the pot. There is a French saying “faute de grives, on mange des merles,” which translates to “no thrushes, then we’ll eat blackbirds” (or half a loaf is better than none). Here in France, there are still plenty of older people around who can remember eating blackbird, though they say thrush, a small spotted songbird, has a more delicate flavor. On the island of Corsica, in the Mediterranean, both blackbird and thrush are still common fare.
It was during the 16th century that man’s relationship with the blackbird reached it’s lowest ebb. French courtiers were bored and liked to engage in frivolous games to amuse themselves. A favorite form of entertainment was to capture live blackbirds then place them in a pie with a crust over the top preventing escape. Obviously, when the pie was cut open the birds would come spilling out, making hosts the life of the party. It was this parlor game that led to the line “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” in the well-known nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence.
Although there is scant information about who was responsible for capturing these unfortunate birds, I suspect the poor old gardener was involved somewhere along the line. The practice was not restricted to blackbirds, either. There is historical evidence of the use of frogs, rabbits and, on at least one occasion, a human dwarf. Such antics would hardly be considered amusing today. In my younger days, however, I did attend a bachelor party where a buxom young lady popped out of a large cake, though I suspect that was not quite the same thing.
Mike Alexander, GV’s European correspondent, lives in Southern France where he manages a large estate garden. A horticulturist for more than 20 years who has professionally gardened in the UK, France and Africa, he writes regularly on gardening, food and environmental issues for magazines and Web sites in the U.S., France, South Africa and New Zealand.