13 February 2010

Faute de merles...

Yesterday a big flock of birds that looked like thrushes landed in our back yard. They were especially interested in the vegetable garden plots, which are covered with rotting leaves and rotting apples for the winter. The thrushes may have been looking for insects under the leaves but, given that the ground is frozen right now, they were probably gorging themselves on apples.

Looking at my bird books, I think these are the thrushes called the fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). In French, that would be the grive litorne. They are related to, and in shape resemble, the European blackbird (le merle) and the North American robin (which is a thrush — the European robin or rouge-gorge is a completely different bird). Grives are prized game birds in France. I don't think I've ever eaten any though. It'another thing I'd like to try.

A flock of birds in the garden plots
Click the picture to see an enlargement.

There's a saying in French: « Faute de grives, on mange des merles. » — a literal translation is: "Lacking thrushes, one eats blackbirds." In other words, you make do with what you've got. Beggars can't be choosers.

Grives litornes travel in big flocks, according to both the French and English birder guides, and in winter they are often seen feeding on apples and pears they find rotting on the ground. They come from Scandinavia and Russia, where they breed, and they have been expanding their territory into France over the past few decades.

There were many very plump birds out there.

I went out and looked this afternoon, and these birds have really done a number on the apples we scattered over the garden plots as well as the ones we put in a big compost pile out by the back fence. Many of the apples are hollowed out and even pecked until just little shreds are left. All that apple flesh going through the birds' digestive systems and ending up back on the ground will serve as good fertilizer in the spring.

There must have been 100 birds out there,
pecking and scratching.

The pictures above are ones I took with a zoom lens out of our bedroom window. I couldn't get any closer because the birds were spooked even when they saw me just looking out the window, many meters distant. I had to be stealthy and not move around too much so as not to scare them away.

A late winter cyclamen flowering despite the snow

There was no estimate for the boiler fuel pump in yesterday's mail. So there you go. Wait, wait, and wait some more. Anyway, this is just motivation for me to find another company to do our boiler maintenance and emergency service. Our current contract runs through July 1, so we have time to find another provider.

Triangular sun

We figure our heating plant will be repaired just in time for the arrival of warmer weather.


  1. These grives litornes, Turdus pilaris, have some red on their breast, just like the American Robin, Turdus migratorius, but look more stocky and plumper than the American Robin and the black merle, Turdus merula. Also, some seem to have a yellow beak like the merle [male]. The female merle is a merlette, and is brownish all over.

    Is that a sign that spring is almost there?

  2. Hi Ken, 'Grives'!! Now that brings back some memories! Our favourite restaurant in the Gaume serves them in autumn-winter, but they are never mentioned on the menu card, 'grives' being protected in Wallonië (the French speaking part of Belgium) and a prize game bird in Flandres (Flemish part). Our federal government just has no say in this. Can you imagine?

    C. loves them. Personnally I find them a bit too gamy. Moreover, they serve them with the head and feet. Although I'm not easily put off when it comes to food, I just hate the sight of those empty eyes and tiny clenched claws.

  3. Martine! oh my heavens! They serve them with the head and little feet ON? eeeeewwwwwwwwwhhhh :((

    Ken, I alwyays enjoy seeing posts about the birds you have there that are different from ours. Are cardinals only in North America, or do you have them, too?

    I can't believe all of this wait for them to fix your boiler/heat pump! So, is there some legal issue at play here, that the estimate has to be sent by mail and returned that way?


  4. I've heard about the grive-eating ritual in and around Bordeaux. The birds are served like Martine described and the convives are supposed to put a large linen napkin over the heads and eat the grives like that. Isn't that crazy?

    The grives are much better alive.

  5. I vaguely remember a "pate de grives"; except for quails, I have never eaten other small birds.

  6. Ken, I'm always impressed how you know so many French expressions: « Faute de grives, on mange des merles. »

    You know I love to read about the birds around you. I don't believe I'd ever heard of grives. And now I'm sure I'll never eat one. (Thanks, Martine, for the warning.)

    Judy, the cardinal you see in Missouri is found only in the eastern U.S. I miss seeing them around, now that I live in California. They look especially nice in the snow, don't you think? I have seen a different kind of Cardinal in Hawaii. I don't know about France, though.

    Dedene, great tidbit (MDR).

  7. The little birds that gastonomes eat whole with napkins over their heads to protect others from seeing the juices spurt out of their mouths are called ortolans. They're not grives, which are considerably bigger birds.

    Martine, are you sure grives are always served that way?

    There are no cardinals or American robins in France. Unless there's a stray from time to time. Cardinals are the state bird in both N.C. and Ill., two states I lived in.

    Judy, no estimate in today's mail either. I guess on Monday I'll have to go see the people at the Savelys office across the river. Luckily, our boiler will work for about an hour when we start it cold, before it stalls out. Then we have to wait for it to cool down again, but meanwhile the radiators get hot and heat up the rooms enough for us to be comfortable.

    Nadège, I've never had pâté de grives but I have eaten pigeon and quail. No ortolans, though.

    CHM, the grives litornes all have yellow beaks, but black feet, according to what I have read. I've seen many plump American robins in my time. I don't think the grives are a sign of spring. They supposedly return to Russia and Scandinavia toward the end of March.

  8. I just looked at the Larousse Gastronomique, where I learned that the "flesh of the fieldfare thrush is médiocre" so I guess I won't be out back trying to snare a few. The meat of other thrushes is more delicate and fine.

  9. Yes Ken, I've seen it on several occasions and always prepared by a Michelin star chef ! So there is no doubt ...

  10. There are very few birds that I can name when I see them, and one I wish I had never heard of.

  11. Martine, I have looked at a lot of recipes on the Internet, and not one says anything about cutting off the grive's head or feet. So I believe you.

    Starman, what, the pigeon?

  12. Cheryl, yes I do love to see our cardinals, especially when it snows :) They're the most beautiful bird! We have many of them at our feeder every day. We're lucky!

    Ken, I'm glad that you at least get an hour to heat up those radiators :(


  13. I think it's obsene that the French eat little birds when all around us Nature is struggling to cope with Man's decimation of the planet.

  14. The thrushes are not endangered. The other birds, ortolans, are protected and no longer legally hunted or consumed. If you are American, it would be hard to accuse others of being obscene when it comes to the environment.


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