Helping to save the Song Thrush in London

David Bevan and Will Farmer

(also, see the linked page Recognising the Song Thrush)

During 1998 the London Borough Councils of Haringey and Islington   joined forces and asked residents to take part in a survey of the Song Thrush. Between April and July 1998, we wanted as many people as possible to tell us where they saw and heard this beautiful bird.

Although once one of our most common, well known and loved garden song birds, it has become an endangered species. According to recent reports, Song Thrush numbers have crashed by 60% nationally and up to 73% in some parts of the country. In order to save this beautiful bird, we need to know how its doing locally.

Song Thrushes are welcome visitors to our parks and gardens as they control troublesome pests such as slugs and snails. A prolific songster, the Song Thrush can be heard from very early on in the year throughout the spring. Its melodic song has inspired more poets than any other British bird and many an early riser! Its wonderful song is made up of distinct phrases which are repeated two, three or even four times. As Robert Browning says:

“That’s the wise thrush : he sings each song twice over

Lest you should think he never could re-capture

The first fine careless rapture!”

Sadly, the Song Thrush joins a huge number of wild animals and plants in danger of extinction all over the World. It was concern about this that led the British Government and 150 other nations to sign the ‘Biodiversity Convention’ at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Signatories agreed to develop national Biodiversity Action Plans to identify and protect their most vulnerable wildlife. The British Government has listed over 1000 British species which are endangered and singled out 110 of them which are in need of immediate help. The Song Thrush is on that list.

The reasons for the decline are not clear. It could be to do with loss of suitable habitats or a reduction in food sources. Recent dry summers may make the Song Thrush’s favourite food of worms,slugs and snails scarce. Other factors might be the increasing use of poisonous slug and snail pellets in our gardens or widespread predation by cats.

So between April and August 1998 we tried to get as many people as possible to take part in a local Song Thrush survey.

What we did.

The two nature conservation teams produced a leaflet explaining why the survey was taking place and gave details of what people could do in their own gardens to help the Song Thrush. This covered the provision of appropriate food, as well as encouraging “wild” habitat, deterring cats and suggesting alternatives to slug pellets. We also produced a single sheet (with illustrations in colour!) showing how to distinguish a Song Thrush from a Mistle Thrush and from female or young Blackbirds. The survey form itself asked for details about where the Song Thrush was seen; when and how frequently; what it was doing; and some detail of why the person knew it was a Song Thrush.

In Haringey we sent out a letter to all the Haringey schools that had visited our site at Railway Fields asking them to take part in our survey. We also sent details to local environment groups, libraries and local newspapers.

The results

The response was very good. Thirty-eight people sent in survey forms and forty-three Song Thrush sites were identified. Many of these were records of singing birds and there is no doubt that the Song Thrush is still breeding in many sites in Haringey. The presence of six singing birds in Alexandra Park was particularly noteworthy. About two thirds of the records were from the west of the borough, with no records from the Wood Green / Bounds Green area and few from South Tottenham. In addition no records were received from Queens Wood or Muswell Hill Golf Course, where undoubtedly Song Thrushes can be found. Many railway embankments went unrecorded and gardens in general were under-recorded – especially in the north and east of the borough.

What have we learnt

Our results suggest that the Song Thrush is not in as bad a position in Haringey as we had feared. It is still present in many people’s gardens and in most of the open spaces in the borough. But we don’t know whether there are fewer Song Thrushes here now than there used to be. The national evidence is of a recent steep decline. In Haringey Song Thrushes continue to breed at many sites (unlike the Spotted Flycatcher, which has vanished from several local areas over the past few years). But we need to repeat this survey in a few years time to find out whether the Song Thrush is managing to hold its own in the borough. We hope so.