Which came first, the mistletoe or mistle thrush?

Which came first, the mistletoe or mistle thrush?

This winter we had the pleasure of hosting a pair of visiting mistle thrushes in our garden.This plump thrush (the largest native to Europe) has a distinctive, pale-grey front, flecked with black spots from throat to feet and and the couple made a handsome sight, hopping boldly across the lawn.

 

Though found across Britain, the bird is on the RSPB’s red list, which indicates a species whose population has declined by over 50% in the past 25 years.

Mistle thrush male passes earthworms to a female. Picture by T.Voekler

When not ground-hopping, the mistle thrush (which has the unfortunate Latin name of turdus viscivorus) has a tendency to perch on the highest branch of a tree to advertise its territory through exceptionally loud song that can be heard up to 2km away.

Imagine our surprise, then, a few weeks after our visitors had departed when we noticed a bough of mistletoe growing in our rather decrepit apple tree – on the highest branch. Was there a connection?

Mistletoe

The mistle thrush enjoys berries and is particularly partial to the fruit of the mistletoe (it is said to defend vigorously any clumps it finds in Winter from rivals).

The seeds of the mistletoe pass through the bird and are secreted on to the branch. The fruit is sticky and so the seed is also passed on by the bird wiping its beak on the branch.

Mistletoe is thought of as a parasitic plant that takes its energy from its host, but it is technically a hemiparasite as for some part of its life it does perform a little photosynthesis too.

Mistletoe in our apple tree

The seedling can take a year or more to penetrate the branch and begin to draw nutrients from it. We now have a healthy looking plant in the tree, which would indicate that our mistletoe was not the result of this year’s visiting mistle thrush but that the mistle thrush was the result of our mistletoes –they just spotted it before we did!

That doesn’t mean the plant didn’t arrive via an earlier mistle thrush visitor. It would be nice to think so.

What this means for our elderly apple tree is another question and it would be interesting to hear from other gardeners about their mistletoe experiences.

Comments (and pictures) welcome!

Mistle thrushes hopping across the lawn

 

Banner image – Giles Laurent, CC BY-SA 4.0

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.