REDWING, The long flight up North

Many birds overwinter in Western Europe and then fly a few thousand kilometer more to their breeding grounds in the cold north to rear their young.The Redwing is just one of these. Why these birds –  in spite of all the hardships  – still leave en masse to undertake this long journey up to the cold north is told in this new tale:

Spending warm spring days sitting on eggs wasn’t Redwing’s idea of fun. And when these were followed by hot summer days, she was really out of sorts. Then she would have to sit on her eggs puffing and sweating, while she turned red from the heat and felt how the sweat built up in her underwing so that these eventually turned copper red. And she wasn’t at all pleased about that….No, in many ways Redwing found the breeding season a real trial.
The only days when Redwing enjoyed sitting on her eggs at all, were those when a refreshing light wind was blowing: a lovely cooling breeze from the north.’Why don’t we simply go and brood there?’ thought Redwing to herself. ‘Up there in the north where the temperature is far more pleasant.’
Sometimes she talked about the idea to other birds, but they all replied: “Just put those crazy thoughts out of your head Up north the temperature may be more comfortable than here, but you simply can’t live up there and it’s very dangerous.” But Redwing simply could not get it out of her mind. Her dislike of the breeding season only grew as the years passed. So at the birds’ next annual general meeting she decided to put her problem on the agenda. “The heat during the brooding season drives me mad. It’s often unbearable and I now know that I’m not the only one who thinks this.”
And it was true. Support came from all sides: not only from Fieldfare, but also from Widgeon, Tufted Duck, Little Stint, Golden Plover, Goose and Buzzard’s sister whom she called Rough Leg because of the feathers on her legs. Redwing continued in her very characteristic shrill voice: “Up north we’d benefit every now and then from that lovely fresh wind. It would be so good if we could nest up there. But apparently, she sighed, that’s not possible. Everyone has been warning me how impossible it is to survive in the north. That it’s dangerous. That some giant monster lives up there which devours every living creature it comes across.”
“Is there any truth in those tales or are they just stories to spook the faint-hearted?” Golden Plover piped up in his mournful voice. “Isn’t there anyone who will dare to go and scout around? To actually check out if it’s true what they say?”
It looked like Rough Leg was wanting to say something but finally thought better of it and remained silent. As did all the others. Until Sandling said: “I think it’s a great idea, Golden Plover. Unfortunately I’m too lightly-built for the job. But couldn’t you go, Redwing? You’re an intelligent, brave bird and you are a strong flyer.”
So one warm late summer day Redwing left with her mate on her expedition up north. Mostly they flew during the cool nights and found somewhere to eat and rest during the hours of daylight. One night as they continued their journey northwards it looked as if the entire sky had suddenly come to life, lit up by some spooky green, yellow and purple forms. They didn’t waste a second, turned and headed for home.
“It’s true what they say, it is strange and spooky up north,” Redwing told the other birds when she arrived back home safe and sound. “One night it seemed as if all of a sudden the entire sky came alive, alight with flaming colours. That must have been the big monster waking up and starting to breath fire. Fortunately, we managed to escape in time by flying back home fast.”
The audience remained silent, dumbfounded by their sense of horror and disappointment. But then the normally silent Rough Leg asked: “Did you actually see the monster with your own eyes?”
All the birds turned and looked at her in disgust and amazement. How could she possibly ask such a question? She went on quietly: “Sometimes, when I’m feeling bored, I simply set off and go for a long trip. I can easily fly up high using thermals. I have actually seen those very colourful moving skies in the distance you were just talking about. They call them the northern lights. But I have never seen any giant monster. I will go and investigate myself. But now winter has set in, I’d rather stay put and go next spring. If that’s alright by you?” And that is what happened.

Four years later there was still no sign of Rough Leg which left Redwing feeling guilty about her ill-fated plan. Everyone mourned for the brave Rough Leg who had almost certainly been devoured by the monster of the north. But then one warm autumn day while Redwing was out looking for somewhere to cool off on the open plains near the sea, to her utter amazement she saw Rough Leg touch down with her family. Redwing hid herself among some sea buckthorn bushes and was shocked to hear what Rough Leg was saying to her mate: “What a good thing we never told those stupid birds here anything about the cool summers in the far north. Now that paradise is all ours and ours alone with an endless supply of food just for our children.”
In a fury Redwing emerged from her hiding place among the bushes and cried out: “And we thought you were dead, Rough Leg! But here you are safe and well, you and your entire family. And I just heard you talking about the paradise up north. I am deeply deeply disappointed in you! You have tricked us all! I suggest you never ever show your face among the birds here again!” And off Redwing flew, trembling with rage as she headed over to tell the other birds the truth.

Ever since then each spring Fieldfare, Widgeon, Strandling, Golden Plover and Goose and their families migrate a few thousand kilometers up north. There they find space and food in abundance. And it’s not too hot either. Besides which it stays light nearly all day and night, so they can easily spot their enemies and are better able to protect their nests. Unfortunately, the winters there are extreme, which is why every autumn they all fly back down south.
Listen carefully after nightfall, because that’s when you might hear the redwings telling each other the ancient stories about Redwing and Rough Leg and the origins of their yearly great migration.
To this very day rough legged buzzards still feel gulty about their ancestors’  treachery and explains why they choose to live a secluded existence in wide open plains both here and in the far north.


Formerly people thought that migratory birds hid themselves in cracks and cavities in mountains or went underground to hibernate. Only in the mid-nineteenth century did it become clear that this assumption was totally inaccurate.

The Redwing (Turdus iliacus) may be the smallest member of the well-known thrush family, but it is by far the fastest flyer.. A better name for the Redwing would be the Redunderwing, because it is not the bird’s wing but its underwing and underbody which are a copper red colour. Redwings are real group birds. In the winter they mainly eat berries, but are also passionate about other rotting fruits. You see them in berry rich trees and bushes such as hawthorns in the dunes, woods, parks and gardens. During their migration they fly in large groups, mainly at night. In the dark they fly at a greater distance from one other and communicate continuously with each other using high-pitched sounds to avoid collisions and to ensure they all fly together in the right direction. By day they fly closer to one another. In the summertime you will see as many Redwings in Scandinavia as there are blackbirds in The Netherlands. Like blackbirds they break up the rich topsoil with their beaks in search of worms and insects. They can live to be 19 years.

The rough leg buzzard (Buteo lagopus) closely ressembles the (common) buzzard (Buteo buteo) but is more strongly built. It also has a wider wingspan (of up to 1,5 metres) and a white upper tail with a tip defined by a clear dark stripe. Moreover, its legs and toes are covered in feathers unlike the buzzard which has no feathers on these body parts. They are not truly solitary birds only living in family groups during the nesting season. They mainly live on the large expanses of the tundras of Scandinavia and Russia. In September and October they migrate to the milder climates of Central and Southern Europe with The Netherlands as their most northern limit. It shares the unusual behaviour of the kestrel and ‘prays’ while out hunting. While it mainly hunts for small rodents like mice and lemmings, rabbits and birds also appear on its menu. They are excellent flyers which make good use of thermals. They can live to be 15. A few dozen specimens spend every winter here in The Netherlands. And another hundred in Belgium. Rough leg buzzards are mainly sighted in The Netherlands in large open areas such as those in the Oostvaardersplassen, a unique wetland and nature reserve, and the delta of the Schelde.












Post Author
Els Baars