WHILST many of our song birds are silent during the winter months, a few might be tempted on a sunny day to sing from a lofty place, if only for a brief moment or two. I have heard robins singing in January and sometimes that shy bird, the dunnock or even a wren might produce a pleasing but short melody.
In addition, birds that do not sing, such as rooks, crows, gulls, geese and many others will continue to utter their familiar calls that can hardly be regarded as songs. However, there is one that specialises in robust singing during cold and often stormy weather. This is the mistle thrush, known in many parts of this country as the storm cock.
As the name suggests, it is a cousin of our song thrush and very like it in appearance, albeit lacking the red touches that identify the redwing or the rather grey appearance of the fieldfare. The mistle thrush is the largest of that group but has the speckled breast and underparts of thrushes – but its speckles are larger than those of its relations.
Because we so often become aware of its presence when it sings from a high tree or other perch during stormy weather, and often in winter, we tend to think of it as a migrant that is wintering here.
In fact, mistle thrushes are widespread throughout this country for most of the year although some youngsters might move south to the continent in severe winters, and others may arrive here from further north if their local weather is truly atrocious. Instead of open and exposed moorland, they seem to prefer countryside that is heavily covered with mature trees, often selecting the highest point as a safe perch for their musical performance.
The mistle thrush’s propensity for singing in storms has sometimes led observers to believe that it can forecast oncoming rough weather of the milder sort, then to select a perch that is most suitable for its singing.
Not surprisingly, the mistle thrush is not our only wild bird that is said to forecast the weather. The green woodpecker or yaffle is often known as the rainbird because is has the uncanny ability to forecast rain – and it announces the fact through it famous “laughing” call. Frequent calling by woodpeckers is widely thought to herald a bout of stormy weather, not merely rain but probably thunder and lightning. If a woodpecker leaves its usual haunt, it is supposed to herald bad weather.
Magpies are thought to forecast windy weather if they fly around in threes or fours as they chatter together, whilst jackdaws perching on the weather vane of a church are widely regarded a sign of oncoming bad weather. Our old friend from the summer, the cuckoo, is also thought to herald bad weather if it calls its familiar “cuckoo” all through summer.
If our wild birds are capable of forecasting the weather, good or bad, then that is not considered unusual. Nature has made them keenly aware of changes to the climate simply because they must prepare for all conditions if they are to survive. If our cats and dogs, sheep and pigs, can forecast bad weather ahead, it is not surprising that our wild creatures can do likewise. But we do not know how they managed to do so.
Nonetheless, our forebears regularly based their rural working life on the signs presented by birds in the wild. I have heard of other farmers working on the continent not beginning their ploughing until they heard the cry of a crane in flight; cranes soaring and flying overhead heralded fine weather, but if cranes made an early appearance in the autumn, then a tough autumn could be expected.
The fishermen along our coastline would always watch the behaviour of seagulls before heading out to sea to their fishing grounds.
Perhaps the most simple of those observations was that if the gulls remained on shore instead of heading out to sea, bad weather could be anticipated. So the crew did not put to sea.
When I was growing up deep in the North York Moors, it was always a sign of bad weather if the moorland sheep came down from the moors and wandered around our village. Snow was always a possibility. Likewise, if they stood with their backs to the wind, rain and heavier winds were expected.
All this mystery means we cannot leave our domestic animals out of these notes. I recall that when our cat washed her ears and face furiously, it was believed fine weather would follow. This appears to have been a common belief in the northern counties, but some southerners placed a different interpretation upon that situation. It was said to be a sign of rain.
A sneezing cat was also said to be a sign of rain whilst howling dogs usually heralded a storm. But here is a short verse to conclude:
Hark! I hear the asses bray;
We shall have some rain today.
MYSTERY OF ARROWS
A reader has asked if I can explain the presence and meaning of the three giant arrows of Boroughbridge. To be honest, I don’t think anyone can truly explain them and their presence although they have been the subject of many examinations and theories down the centuries.
Some references call them The Devil’s Arrows, a suggestion that no-one can explain their arrival and purpose. Centuries ago there were four of these massive stones but one of thewas demolished more than three hundred years ago and used as bridge building material. One old account suggests there were originally seven of these standing stones whilst the author John Leland (1691-1766) recorded four “great stones carved by man’s hand.”
Although these mighty stones were probably carried to this site by glaciers, they appear to have been worked by the hand of Neolithic man and how those primitive people managed to move them around or stand them upright remains a great mystery.
The three surviving stones vary in height from 16 to 22 feet (approx. 4.8m to 6.7m) and are known as menhires, an ancient Celtic word meaning “long stones”. Such giant stones are found in other areas such as Northumberland, Cornwall, Dartmoor and Wales and more places where they are sometimes arranged in a massive circle where they may have marked a Stone Age burial site.
Inevitably, the sheer size of those stones and their majestic presence on the edge of Boroughbridge has attracted a legend. The clue lies in their name for it was believed the Devil had a massive grudge against the nearby Roman settlement of Aldborough because it had somehow angered him.
Determined to crush Aldborough, the Devil fired several huge stone arrows from his gigantic bow, but all fell short and so Aldborough survived. This is why they have long been known as The Devil’s Arrows. But the story does not tell us where or how Satan found those massive arrows.