A peek into the life of a national treasure – il-merill

Before spring is out, go for an evening cliffside walk with your child and treat them to the haunting melody of the blue rock-thrush
The much-loved national bird sports deep blue plumage and black wings. Photo: Ray Vella

Ask any child which is our national bird and they will tell you it’s the blue rock-thrush, il-merill. But how many children, or adults for that matter, have seen the beautiful blue thrush?

As with any other query, one must know what they’re looking for, so let’s delve into the world of this solitary bird.

Family profile

As the name implies, the bird is a thrush, a group that immediately conjures up the shape of a stocky, round-bellied bird with a relatively short tail. A bird’s general shape is the birdwatcher’s first port of call before any other details take shape.

Relativity is a second important identification key that allows the watcher to tell one member of a group from another. Robin and blue rock-thrush, for instance, are both in the thrush family, but the national bird is almost twice the size of a robin. So if you see a bird that looks like a large robin, it could well be a blue rock-thrush.

Defying the expression ‘birds of a feather flock together, the blue rock-thrush is a solitary bird. Do not look for this bird in flocks or family parties, as you would the more common Spanish sparrow.

The bird’s solitary habit gives it its scientific name – Monticola solitarius – solitary mountain dweller. Find it in rocky cliff habitats or around quarries, perched on an outcrop from where it issues its melodious song.

The bird’s typical habitat is rocky cliffs and coastal garrigue. Photo: Aron Tanti

Blue’s melody

Few of our birds are as musical as that of our blue national bird. During the breeding season between April and June, the male’s strong, fluting notes echo over its rocky territory. Aim for cliffy outcrops – ‘rdum’ − such as Dingli cliffs or anywhere along the Western coast. Let the thrush’s melody lure you to its silhouette on the rocky skyline or perched atop a boulder.

You can attune your ear to the blue rock-thrush’s song by listening to a recording from the website https://xeno-canto.org/.

If you’re on location and need to confirm what you’re hearing, the app BirdNET will come in very handy – just point it in the direction of the melody and it will tell you the avian singer’s name.

But, as with all AI tools, caution is the name of the game. Before rushing off to tell everyone that you’ve just identified a super-exotic macaw, make sure it isn’t someone’s mobile ring tone, or some accidental ambient sound!

The blue rock-thrush will sit on a boulder or high perch and sing its fluting and far-reaching melody. Photo: Aron Tanti

A new hobby

Investing in a pair of binoculars for you and your child will open a window into the fascinating world of birdwatching. Scan your surroundings with the naked eye first. Once you’ve spotted the unmistakable shape of a blue rock-thrush, train your binoculars onto it and fill your scope with the deep blue of the male’s plumage.

Sightings of blue rock-thrush will be easier in spring as the male goes through flamboyant aerial manoeuvres with slow wing beats and widely-fanned tail, while the browner female sizes him up a short distance away.

At any other time of the year, you can enjoy these birds skillfully navigating their rocky territory in search of insects, earthworms, spiders, and small reptiles.

Blue rock-thrushes forage of insects and reptiles in rocky land. Photo: Ray Vella

A national icon

A blue rock-thrush couple will build their nest in cracks and crevices on cliffs and rocky hills, or even on bastions.

True to form, even their four to six eggs are blue! The combination of distinctive pastel-blue eggs, striking blue feathers and melodious voice have attracted unwanted attention by nest-robbers since the early 20th century, despite being legally protected since 1911.

Added to this, increasing urbanisation has eaten away at the bird’s natural habitat, exacerbating the decline of its population in our islands.

The popularity of the blue rock-thrush in Maltese culture made it the natural choice for national bird in 1970 and a regular feature in children’s school books.

Before spring is out, go for an evening cliffside walk with your child and treat them to the haunting melody of the blue rock-thrush.

Instil a newfound passion for birdwatching and let our iconic national bird become their gateway to exploring our avian heritage.

Desirée Falzon is a naturalist and field teacher with BirdLife Malta.

A typical blue rock-thrush nest made of loosely woven twigs with four precious pastel-blue eggs. Photo: Joe Sultana

Join BirdLife Malta

For more nature experiences for you and your children, join BirdLife Malta’s family events at www.birdlifemalta.org/events or become a member and join their family of nature lovers at https://birdlifemalta.org/become-member/.

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