Saturday, 16 March 2019

Stockamsel: a name to conjure with.

My use of the term ‘Stockamsel’ and or the associated images of Blackbirds usually prompts some feedback and discussion so I thought I would give the subject a bit more of an airing. I should start by saying ‘Stockamsel’ is not a valid term as such; however, historic misconceptions and misinterpretations have generally led to it being associated with first-year male Blackbirds that have a distinct plumage type. They are also supposed to originate in a particular geographic region and that idea has persisted to a greater or lesser degree into the modern era.

I have previously mentioned that there is an illustration of a ‘Stockamsel’ type Blackbird in the Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and Africa (BWP for short) that was published as recently as 1988. In that authoritative work the plate of Blackbirds shows a dark-billed individual with quite scaly underparts and captions it: ‘first adult male (autumn) ‘stockamsel’ variety’ so it is hardly surprising the term still has some traction, although there was no explanation the text for its inclusion. However, the term 'Stockamsel' does get a mention in the text of the Helm Guide to Bird Identification (Vinicombe et al)  that was published in 2014. In the section covering Ring Ouzel and Blackird and under the sub-heading 'Abberant Blackbirds' it states 'Confusion could also arise with first-winter male Blackbirds of the so-called 'stockamsel' type (from Germany and Poland) which have a dull bill and eye ring, browner wings, a paler chin, and heavy pale fringing to the underparts feathers' but note the qualified use of the term by referring to it as a so-called type.

I am no expert on the origin of the term ‘Stockamsel’ or how it was originally applied but the ‘amsel’ bit is easy as it is German for Blackbird. It would appear that ‘Stockamsel’ is simply an alternate/historic German name for Blackbird and is similar to how we, in the UK, have used Hedge Sparrow as a name for Dunnock. Whether it was originally meant to be used for birds with a particular distinctive appearance has probably been lost through the mists of time and the notion that Stockamsel type Blackbirds are of continental origin seems to have largely come from the origin of the word and not much else.

To what extent I am right or wrong about the origins of the term 'Stockamsel' doesn’t really matter but like others I have used it for those first-autumn/early winter male Blackbirds that are quite female like and often scaly in appearance. I have also speculated about their origins because there has been the notion that birds with that type of appearance are more likely to be continental.

I did stretch my use of the term in my last post as all the Blackbirds had yellow bills but I did say forget the bill in one of the captions as each of those birds would have looked quite female like with an all dark bill, as would have been likely up to the turn of the year. I also commented on their possible origin and considered local origin as likely as any. So if I have confused anyone or added to the centuries old misunderstandings about what a Stockamsel Blackbird actually is then I hope this blog post goes some way to clearing that up. Stockamsel is a term that probably should be confined to history but I don’t regret using it for drawing attention to first-year male Blackbirds with a female-like appearance, which was the real point.

Blackbirds are common birds and often don’t get a second look and being sexually dimorphic they are generally considered easy to sex, especially in the hand, but that is not always the case. It is worth having another look at the images of the bird that first tempted me to use the term ‘Stockamsel’.

This bird was caught 10th December 2016 and got me thinking about its sex as I was taking it out of the net. It certainly seems to fit the brief description of a 'Stockamsel' type given in the Helm Guide (Vinicombe et al).

The juvenile feathers of the tail were all brown. The significance of the tail is that some ringers sex juvenile Blackbirds on the basis of the tail colour and while it may be reasonably safe to sex those juveniles with a particularly black tail as male I don't think it would be appropriate to sex any juveniles as females using tail colour.

The wing was generally brown with the new greater coverts and median coverts being the darkest feathers and in this image looking blackish compared to the adjacent feathers but they still had a hint of brown and we far from glossy black.
 The images don't quite do justice to how brown the bird actually looked in the hand and while there is no doubt about the age of this bird its sex is less straightforward. I came to the conclusion that this was a first-winter male but had no way of verifying that.

So, hopefully, I have explained my use of the term 'Stockamsel' but the real interest lies in the variability of first-year male Blackbirds and those with a scaly and more female-like appearance in particular. I don't hold with the idea that it means they are necessarily of continental origin and more likely to come from Germany and Poland but they are interesting nevertheless.

Cramp, S., ed. (1988) The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Vol. 5. Oxford University Press, Oxford
Vinicombe, K., Harris, A., Tucker, L., (2014) The Helm Guide to Bird Identification, page 323, Bloomsbury Publishing, London.

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