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Country diary: a blackbird entranced by the sun

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I guessed that the intermittent rustling sound under the beech hedge was a blackbird foraging, even before the culprit emerged, maniacally hurling dead leaves to left and right in a vain search for worms. During the hot weather earthworms have burrowed deep and curled up in underground chambers to escape the drought; there hasn’t been enough rain to coax them back to the surface.

The bird stood on the path, looked briefly in my direction, and sat with drooping wings, seemingly in a state of utter exhaustion, with his back to the sun. Then he seemed to collapse, beak open, rump feathers puffed up, wings spread wide, tail fanned.

A sunbathing blackbird with its head turned so that one side faces the sun.
A sunbathing blackbird will turn its head so that one side faces the sun. Photograph: Phil Gates
And there he stayed, panting, in the trance-like state known as sunning that is particularly prevalent in blackbirds, for a full five minutes, oblivious to my presence. The late Eric Simms, an ornithologist who studied these birds for many years, timed them in this posture for twice as long, and the published record for Turdus merula in such a catatonic state is 26 minutes.

There is debate about why they do this. One suggestion is that they simply enjoy it. There is also speculation that solar radiation might interact beneficially with preen oil secreted by glands in the bird’s rump. Another possibility is that rapid temperature increase on a body clothed in radiation-absorbing black plumage might dislodge lice, ticks and mites, making them more accessible during preening, especially in harder-to-reach feathers. Whatever the reason, it must surely have some survival value because in this state blackbirds are extremely vulnerable to predators.

Eventually this one rose to his feet, and stood dazed for a few minutes longer, wings still drooping, perhaps suffering a little from sunstroke. Then he shook his feathers into place, raked his neck and the back of his head with his claws, preened wing primary feathers with his beak, and seemed to have gained a lease of life.

A blackbird preening after sunbathing
During post-sunbathing preening the blackbird’s eye is protected by its third eyelid, the nictitating membrane, giving it a milky appearance. Photograph: Phil Gates

Abandoning the futile search for worms, he turned his attention to the raspberries, tearing them from the branches and gobbling them whole. The path is now spattered with seed-laden droppings, testament to his temporary switch to a fruitarian diet during weeks of worm famine.


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