Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Thrush

THRUSH (A. S. rysce, Icel frosfr, Norw. Trast, 0. H. Germ. Drosce, whence the modern German Drossel, to be compared with the analogous English form Throstle,[1] now almost obsolete, both being apparently diminutives), the name that in England seems to have been common to two species of birds, the first now generally distinguished as the Song-Thrush, but known in many districts as the Mavis,[2] the second called the Mistletoe-Thrush, but having many other local designations, of which more presently.

The former of these is one of the finest songsters in Europe, but it is almost everywhere so common that its merits in this respect are often disregarded, and not unfrequently its melody, when noticed, is ascribed to the prince of feathered vocalists, the NIGHTINGALE (vol. xvii. p. 498). The Song-Thrush is too well known to need description, for in the spring and summer there is hardly a field, a copse, or a garden that is not the resort of a pair or more; and the brown-backed bird with its spotted breast,

hopping over the grass for a few yards, then pausing to detect the movement of a worm, and vigorously seizing the same a moment after, is one of the most familiar sights. Hardly less well known is the singular nest built by this bird—a deep cup, lined with a thin but stiff coating of fragments of rotten wood ingeniously spread, and plastered so as to present a smooth interior—in which its sea-green eggs spotted with black are laid. An early breeder, it builds nest after nest during the season, and there can be few birds more prolific. Its ravages on ripening fruits, especially strawberries and gooseberries, excite the enmity of the imprudent gardener who leaves his crops unprotected by nets, but he would do well to stay the hand of revenge, for no bird can or does destroy so many snails, as is testified to the curious observer on inspection of the stones that it selects against which to dash its captures, stones that are besmeared with the slime of the victims and bestrewn with the fragments of their shattered shells. Nearly all the young Thrushes reared in the British Islands—and this expression includes the storm-swept isles of the Outer Hebrides, though not those of Shetland—seem to emigrate as soon as they are fit to journey, and at a later period they are followed by most of their parents, so that many parts of the kingdom are absolutely bereft of this species from October to the end of January. On the continent of Europe the autumnal influx of the birds bred in the North is regarded with much interest, as has been already stated (Birds, vol. iii. p. 765), for they are easily ensnared and justly esteemed for the table, while their numbers make their appearance in certain districts a matter of great importance.

The second species to which the name applies is distinguished as the Mistletoe-Thrush, or, by corrupt abbreviation, the Missel-Thrush.[3] It is known also in many districts as the "Storm-cock," from its habit of singing in squally weather that silences almost all other birds, and "Holm- (i.e., Holly-) Thrush," while the harsh cries it utters when angry or alarmed have given it other local names, as "Screech," "Shrite," and "Skrike," all traceable to the Anglo-Saxon Scric.[4] This is a larger species than the last, of paler tints, and conspicuous in flight by the white patches on its outer tail-feathers. Of bold disposition, and fearless of the sleety storms of spring, as of predatory birds, the cock will take his stand on a tall tree, "like an enchanter calling up the gale" (as Knapp happily wrote), and thence with loud voice proclaim in wild and discontinuous notes the fervour of his love for his mate; nor does that love cease when the breeding-season is past, since this species is one of those that appear to pair for life, and even when, later in the year, it gathers in small flocks, husband and wife may be seen in close company. In defence of nest and offspring, too, few birds are more resolute, and the Daw, Pie, or Jay that approaches with an ill intent speedily receives treatment that causes a rapid retreat, while even the marauding cat finds the precincts of the "master of the coppice" (Pen y llwyn), as the Welsh name this Thrush, unsuitable for its stealthy operations. The connexion of this bird with the mistletoe, which is as old as the days of Aristotle, is no figment, as some have tried to maintain. Not only is it exceedingly fond of the luscious viscid berries, but it seems to be almost the only bird that will touch them. Of other British Thrushes, the Fieldfare (vol. ix. p. 142), Redwing (vol. xx. p. 318), and the Blackbird and Ring-Ousel (vol. xviii. p. 75) have been before noticed in these pages, as has been (under the first of those headings) the so-called "Robin " of North America.

The Thrushes have been generally considered to form a distinct Family, Turdidæ, which is placed by some taxonomers the highest in rank among birds. An attempt has already been made (Ornithology, vol. xviii. pp. 30, 48) to point out the fallacy of this view, and space is here wanting to dwell longer on the matter. This is the more to be regretted, for, though many modern systematists will admit the close connexion of the Turdidæ and some of the so-called Family Sylviidæ or Warblers (q.v.), the abolition or modification of the latter, by wholly or partially merging it in the former, has not yet been satisfactorily effected, and Mr Seebohm, in his portion of the British Museum Catalogue of Birds (v. p. 1), being compelled by the conditions previously laid down by Mr Sharpe (op. cit., iv. pp. 6, 7) to unite them, protests against doing so. His own assignment of the Subfamily Turdinæ is into 11 genera, of which, however, 6 only would be commonly called Thrushes, and it must be borne in mind that in establishing these he regards coloration as the most valid character. They are Geocichla with 40 species, Turdus with 48, Merula with 52, Mimocichla with 3, Catharus with 12, and Monticola with 10. These last, well known as Rock-Thrushes, make a very near approach to the Nightingale (vol. xvii. p. 498), Redstart (vol. xx. p. 317), and Wheatear (q.v.).(a. n.)

  1. For many interesting facts connected with the words "Thrush" and " Throstle " which cannot be entered upon here, the reader should consult Prof. Skeat's Etymological Dictionary.
  2. Cognate with the French Mauvis, though that is nowadays almost restricted to the REDWING (vol. xx. p. 318). Its diminutive is Mauviette, the modern table-name of the Skylark, and perhaps Mavis was in English originally the table-name of the Thrush.
  3. There is no doubt of the bird taking its name from the plant Mistletoe (Viscum album), about the spelling of which there can be no uncertainty—A.S. Misteltan, the final syllable originally signifying "twig," and surviving in the modern "tine," as of a fork or of a deer's antler.
  4. It seems quite possible that the word Shrike (vol. xxi. p. 845), though now commonly accepted as the equivalent, in an ornithological sense, of Lanius, may have been originally applied to the Mistletoe-Thrush. In several of the Anglo-Saxon Vocabularies dating from the 8th to the 11th century, as printed by Thomas Wright, the word Scric, which can be hardly anything else than the early form of "Shrike," is glossed Turdus.