‘Turdus’ – the latin name for thrushes, can sound a little rude. But it’s simply the latin word for thrush and therefore perfectly apt. Nothing to do with ‘turd’, which means excrement. But making the link is inevitable – and many people snigger when told that a Blackbird’s latin name is Turdus merula, a Song Thrush Turdus philomelos, a Redwing Turdus iliacus, a Fieldfare Turdus pilaris or a Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus. So much turdus!
That last one, the Mistle Thrush, actually produces quite important turds, so its turdiness seems particularly apt. And those significant turds are all about, you guessed it, mistletoe. That’s where the viscivorus part of its latin name comes from – it is ‘Viscum-eating’ and Viscum album is mistletoe.
A Mistle Thrush eating mistletoe berries produces mistletoey turds – sticky strings of semi-digested mistletoe berries complete with completely undigested mistletoe seeds, just waiting to germinate on a host tree branch.
The turds of Turdus viscivorus are especially critical for mistletoe to spread. This is particularly so because very few other birds seem to want to eat mistletoe – the berries aren’t brightly coloured so seem less attractive, and any bird that does try one will find it contains one inconveniently large seed (which won’t be digested) set in a mucilaginous glue that can mess up a dainty beak for some time. Mistletoe berry eaters have to be determined – they are effectively eating glue – and not many birds want to do that.
Turd production is just the first step for mistletoe seeds of course – which rely on their remaining (post-digestion) natural stickiness to attach to a branch. Mistletoe seeds need that branch – and if the turd misses a branch the seeds are doomed.
Even when the turd hits a branch most seeds will fail, as they will dangle uselessly below it in a string of sticky mucilage. The process is, literally, a very hit and miss affair. But it does give rise to yet another name – ‘mistletoe’ itself. This is usually attributed to the Old English word ‘misteltan’, a combination of ‘mistel’ meaning Dung (or turd!) and ‘tan’ meaning twig. Literally Dung on a Twig. Aren’t names wonderful?
If you want to see some good Mistle Thrush turds, now is the time to start looking! Mistletoe berries tend not to be eaten in quantity until mid-winter onwards (sometimes remaining uneaten well into spring) so the season has only just started, but is well underway. I was out in an apple orchard near home this afternoon and saw several fresh mistletoe-laden turds, probably from Mistle Thrushes but maybe from Fieldfares or Redwings – other thrushes who behave in a similar way.
Be wary though. A Mistle Thrush guards its berry patch and only strays a few metres away for a quick crap so it can return asap. And it usually travels exactly the same few metres.
Which leads to the creation of a Thrush toilet area – a part of the tree where the thrush craps repeatedly. These areas can be hazardous – with multiple strings of sticky excreted mistletoe seeds hanging down – and almost invisible until you walk into them… Sticky thrush turds in your face are not pleasant! So do look where you’re going if you’re wandering around a mistletoe-laden apple orchard in the next few weeks.
It is worth noting, by the way, that the common name, ‘Mistle Thrush’, is thought to be an Anglicisation of the latin name – and not really a traditional name for the bird at all. More traditional names include Storm Cock, Char Cock and Skirl Cock – which relate to the species’ harsh call, in all weathers, not to its eating habits. And actually, when you think about it, why should it be named after its mistletoe eating at all? Particularly in Britain. ‘Mistle Thrushes’ occur all over Britain, and eat all sorts of berries. But mistletoe has a fairly restricted distribution in the sw midlands. Most British Mistle Thrushes will never, therefore, experience any mistletoe-eating. Which seems odd, bearing in mind mistletoe’s apparent dependence on the thrushes…
Next time in Mistletoe Diary – re-visiting the story of the Eastern European Blackcaps – birds which migrate over here in increasing numbers (regardless of any referendum!) and eat our mistletoe berries, in a completely different way to thrushes…
Grow-Your-Own Mistletoe – kits and gift cards from the English Mistletoe Shop
A Little Book About Mistletoe – printed and Kindle versions
Mistletoe Matters Consultancy – all about mistletoe in Britain
The Mistletoe Pages – even more about mistletoe
Mistletoe Surveys – seeking your input…
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