Photo: © Shutterstock.com/Andrew M. Allport. Ring ouzel: also known as ‘mountain thrush’, ‘moor blackbird’ and ‘rock starling’, as it is rarely seen away from such areas
To get into ring ouzel nesting country, you need to hike into some of Britain’s bleakest and most remote landscapes. And for British softbill enthusiasts, this relative of the familiar blackbird represents an equally serious commitment. BILL NAYLOR investigates the life history of our most charismatic thrush and (not a lot of people know) our smelliest, too!
ONE of our earliest summer visitors, the ring ouzel (Turdus torquatus), as suggested by three of its numerous country names “mountain thrush”, “moor blackbird” and “rock starling”, is in the breeding season a bird of mountains and moorland. This upland version of the blackbird prefers areas above 310m (1,000ft), and shuns agricultural land, areas of human habitation, and humans for that matter.
Slightly smaller than a blackbird, the male ring ouzel has a yellow beak and a white crescent shaped area or “gorget” on its chest, from which its old name “ring thrush” is derived. Ouzel is from osle – the old English name for blackbird. The wings of both males and females have grey edges. This is not conspicuous in flight, but when grounded the outer length of the closed wings display a silvery grey area of plumage, an obvious identifying feature if the gorget can’t be seen. The female has a brown beak and much browner plumage than the male. She also has more scaled plumage and her gorget is faded.
Leucistic blackbirds, which are not uncommon, are often confused with ring ouzels. Many sightings of ring ouzels in lowland areas refer to such blackbirds. These blackbirds typically have white on the throat and back of the neck, often with white spotting elsewhere. Ring ouzels (except first-year females) always possess a chest patch, albeit slightly obscured in the adult hen. This never encroaches on the brown throat, however.
It’s thought that the ring ouzel’s loud vocals enable it to be heard above the roar and whistle of the moorland winds. It usually calls from a rock or fence post, rather than a tree or other elevated location. The song is similar to an amateur flutist who plays a few high notes then gets fed up. The result is a hastily repeated song uttered three or four times, sometimes only once, depending on the individual.
However, it’s much louder than a blackbird’s, as I can well testify. Blackbirds are almost deafening when calling indoors, but a hand-reared ring ouzel I had ratcheted up the decibel level until it was so strident that you had to cover your ears. Unlike the blackbird’s lengthy siren-like alarm call, the ring ouzel’s is a hastily repeated rattling ttchack-ttchack, not unlike that of the fieldfare, whose country name “Jack bird” is derived from its call.
The ring ouzel is shyer than the blackbird, and in captivity is less confiding and not as easy to breed. According to Dave Cole’s First Breedings in Captivity it was first bred in the UK in 1940. A few are currently bred by British bird specialists.
Ring ouzels require plenty of cover when breeding or they can be nervous and skittish. Aviary birds often become very stressed when hawks fly overhead. This is not surprising because merlins and peregrines take ring ouzels as they fly in from migration. Hawks are the main predators of youngsters, although nests are sometimes raided by rats and hedgehogs.
In the wild they nest often in rock gullies, or on the ground, on a ledge or in low vegetation. Gorse bushes are a favourite. The bulky nest is constructed of sticks, bracken, grasses and heather. In captivity, they will use a tray or open-fronted nest-box. Unlike the blackbird’s nest, the cup is lined with moss and is more untidy. Dead grass stalks are unwoven into the nest, protruding at all angles like broken bicycle spokes.
The male assists in nest-building, but the four to six eggs (like those of the blackbird, but with a greener background and smaller speckles) are incubated by the hen for two weeks.
Mottled dark brown youngsters with yellow-edged beaks and orange gapes are fed mainly on black beetles and earthworms. Parents often have a favourite patch of turf where they extract these worms.
Like mistle thrushes, ring ouzels will protect their nests aggressively from predators and don’t hesitate to divebomb and scold trespassing humans. In the wild when a nest is in the vicinity, the owners indicate they are nesting by loitering nervously.
In captivity, locusts, crickets and mealworms are used to rear young, but earthworms are preferred. The amount of earthworms fed to chicks means the gut-loaded calcium and mineral intake the nestlings consume via the soil is substantial. The fledging period is about two weeks. After leaving the nest the dull brown, short-tailed youngsters hide in the undergrowth, and are fed by the parents for roughly a fortnight.
After the breeding season and prior to migration, ring ouzels switch to rowan and, their favourite, juniper berries. Their migration route is said to coincide with presence of juniper trees. In captivity they are fond of grapes and soft fruits like raspberries and blackberries.
Although ring ouzels are upland birds, they are mainly short-distance migrants that spend the winter in the Mediterranean and North Africa. When the first birds arrive here in March completing their spring migration, individuals may stop for a breather on the east and south coasts and can turn up anywhere. Instead of returning south in September and October, a few have even over-wintered in southern England. Although this is rare, with warmer winters it could become a more common occurrence.
The European population remains stable, but in the UK the ring ouzel has been in decline for many years. Since 1980 its population has plummeted by 60 per cent. In areas of Wales, the Lake District and certain parts of Scotland where its habitat was previously undisturbed, now walkers and climbers regularly trek through. Whether this has contributed to the ring ouzel’s decline is unknown.
Another factor, not often acknowledged in the decline of summer visiting birds, is the number of those killed during migration. In Mediterranean areas of France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Malta, many migrating birds are killed during spring and autumn migrations. In Cyprus alone, 2016 figures revealed 2.3 million birds, including ring ouzels, were killed after being shot or trapped.
This hunting is now receiving wider exposure and is still a popular pastime. Shooters regularly display photographs of heaps of dead birds on social media websites, where there appears to be competition to shoot and display hundreds of birds of one particular species. Trapping is mainly for “the pot” but it is done on an industrial scale. The food delicacy “Ambelopoulia”, despite being illegal, is a thriving food and there is virtually an industry for it.
Loss of habitat is said to be the number one threat to summer visiting ring ouzels, though much of the UK moorland is in national parks and uncultivated areas. A more significant threat could be when, like other summer visitors, they are targeted during their twice-yearly migration.
Bill Naylor has enjoyed a 40-year career in ornithology and aviculture.
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