Knowing that birds fight over resources in winter, what I found yesterday wasn’t entirely a surprise. Going through the side gate of the garden I was visiting, I noticed clumps of black feathers scattered about and then came upon a rather grisly sight – two dead blackbirds (Turdus merula) laid side by side and they had obviously died fighting. They were lying close enough to be touching each other, both were bloodied and one had feathers in its beak and claws. One was certainly an adult male, shown by the black feathers and yellow beak, whilst the other may have been a female or a younger male that had not yet developed a yellow beak. It wasn’t very easy to tell as both birds were frozen solid and covered in frost.
I tried to imagine what might have happened for both birds to end up dead and yet be lying side by side. Except for on their bodies, there was no blood to be seen. Did they die of exhaustion, did they both die of their injuries at the same time, or could they have somehow knocked each other unconscious and then died of cold? Without thawing them out and investigating more closely, which I was not inclined to do, there was no way to tell.
Blackbirds are known to migrate from colder parts of Europe, so it may be that the intruder had flown in from elsewhere and come up against a bird with an established territory. It is just as likely to have been a local bird from a neighbouring territory, coming in to take advantage of a garden with a good supply of natural food. A resident blackbird will defend its food stores with vigour, as we have seen at home, where a male guards both berries and windfall apples throughout the autumn and early winter, noisily chasing away any other blackbirds who come close.
This sudden cold weather has prompted the birds into even fighting harder to defend their territories. The worms have gone deeper into the frozen soil, other food is more difficult to find and water is frozen; times are hard for the birds just now. A couple of weeks ago, the weather was almost spring-like and there were lively songs in the air, but winter has barged in to change it all. Thoughts have turned from breeding to survival. If you feed the birds, it’s good motivation to put out extra food and water during the winter, when resources are scarce. It is, after all, partly because of our actions that some territories don’t provide enough to eat.