Mistletoe & Kissing Friday

Mistletoe (plus Giles Brandreth and I) featured on TV, again, last night, but in a slightly different context to usual.  The short feature, actually filmed last August, was part of a series on The One Show about Days of the Week – in this case Friday, obviously.

What’s the link?  Well it’s all to to with the Norse Goddess Frigg, for whom Friday is named.  And her son, Balder the Beautiful, who was villainously slain with an arrow of mistletoe, according to legend.  Frigg, who was (is, depending on your beliefs) the Goddess of Love cried over her dead son, her tears becoming the mistletoe’s distinctive pearlescent berries.   And she decreed that everyone meeting under the mistletoe must embrace, in memory of her dead son, and see mistletoe as a plant of peace and love.

All very well.  But why was it broadcast yesterday (24th February) when it had been filmed in August?  I’d been told at filming it would be a Friday in September – which it wasn’t, and then October, ditto, and then, mysteriously it was put forward to 2nd March 2012.  Why the delay?  I dunno, I wasn’t told.

So I was a bit surprised to find it had gone out yesterday – exactly a week earlier than I’d been told.  Why?  Well, it seems Mr Brandreth had worked out that the first Friday after Ash Wednesday is traditionally called Kissing Friday  so yesterday was doubly appropriate for the Balder/Mistletoe story – Frigg’s day and a kissing day too.

So, it seems there was some logic to the delay after all (I had been denouncing it as random late last night), but it still raises the question of why I was told Friday 2nd March, not Friday 24th February.  Perhaps someone at the One Show had picked the wrong week for Ash Wednesday when they mentioned the 2nd – and just not updated me when they corrected their error.

Missed it?  So did I, but it’s on BBC iplayer for the next few days here – mistletoe feature begins, with Frigg and then moving onto Balder, between about 32.20 mins in, ending at about 37.00 mins.



Commercial Break:

Wanna grow your own mistletoe?  The Kissing Plant of Legend (as seen on TV…)

It’s still Mistletoe Planting Season!

Berries are now fully ripe and seeds germinate from Feb to end March/early April

So why not get a Grow-Your-Own Mistletoe Kit from the English Mistletoe Shop?

More blackcaps

After yesterday’s female Blackcap-eating-mistletoe pictures I thought I’d try and get a male today.  We’ve got one that appears every now and then, but he frequents the waste mistletoe pile further away from the window, and is more difficult to photograph.

[Of course there may be several others nearby, of both sexes, but they only ever appear one at a time – rarely two, and then one chases the other away.]

But he did come closer a few times (possibly several, but I can’t spend all day crouching in the window!) and so here are a few pics, just to show what a handsome little brute he is.

And just look at the way he starts to squish those berries, separating the seed very quickly – much more manly (or is it just male impatience?) than yesterday’s female!  (though it takes a bit more than that to actually stop it all sticking together).

These overwintering Blackcaps are, almost certainly, part of the new migration of a particular genetic sub-race of Blackcaps from Germany. They breed there and, traditionally, migrate to Spain in the winter.   As do our own breeding Blackcaps.  But in the last few decades some of the German summering birds have changed their winter migration habits, and come to Britain instead.

Numbers were few at first, just a few dozen 30 years ago – but now they come over in their thousands.  Why?  No-one’s quite sure, though some experts suggest that the easy pickings from British bird tables are partly to blame.

Some people are beginning to suggest some of our own summer breeders are now not bothering to migrate, staying put to mingle with the German visitors each winter.  No evidence for that yet, but there was a brief discussion about it recently in the comments on one of Paul Evans’ contributions to the Guardian’s Country Diary.

There are several side-stories to this.  The most interesting is the evidence that these British-wintering birds, despite spending their summers in Germany mixed up with Spanish-wintering birds, are a distinct genetic group.  They mix with the Spanish-winterers all summer in Germany – but don’t breed with them. They keep themselves to themselves and breed within their wintering groups.  So much so that there are now some morphological differences between them – evolution in action!

Another side issue relates to mistletoe.  Blackcaps are very efficient vectors (spreaders) of mistletoe, taking one berry at a time and wiping each seed off onto a tree branch.  But in Britain they are relatively new winter visitors – we’ve not experienced this level of efficiency for mistletoe spreading before.

Other British wintering birds that tolerate the white sticky berries of mistletoe (most birds don’t like them) are much less efficient.  Mistle Thrushes, for example, swallow the whole berry, seed and all, excreting the seeds en masse, with most failing to touch a branch.

So, what are the implications of a rapidly increasing winter population of ultra-efficient  (German) mistletoe vectors?    No-one knows – but there is coincidental evidence of mistletoe increasing*, in the same time period the Blackcaps have increased.


Intriguing stuff, with no definitive answers yet.  In the meantime, as promised yesterday here’s a (very brief) video of that female Blackcap taking a mistletoe berry:

(*If you’ve got thoughts or observations on UK mistletoe populations, Blackcaps or not, have a look at the Mistletoe League Project, collecting info on mistletoe management and abundance)

White-nose Day

We’ve been very busy this week preparing mistletoe grow-kits; cropping mistletoe, cutting it up to leave just the tips, then carefully cutting off the berries with a weeny bit of stalk (otherwise they leach goo everywhere), and then packing them along with all the other grow-kit bits to be sent out.  It’s surprisingly hard work, and I have a cricked neck to prove it.  This is due to stretching up with extending poles to reach mistletoe each morning and then peering down to cut 1000s of berry stalks every afternoon. An unnatural combination.  Not helped by my varifocals – maybe I should see the optician before the neck masseur.

So how does this work in nature? How are mistletoe berries shifted about naturally?  Well, we have an example right outside the window where we’re working.  There’s a pile of waste mistletoe there, and it’s being exploited by a Blackcap, a bird that specialises in mistletoe berry eating/seed distribution (when it can find it).  Our current Blackcap is a female, so it has a brown, rather than black ‘cap’.  And it loves our little pile of mistletoe, returning again and again to take a berry.  This Blackcap is one of the ‘new’ generation of overwintering Blackcaps – a new migration pattern from a breeding population in Germany – I’ll say more about them another time.

Blackcaps are fussy mistletoe eaters, taking just one berry at a time and separating the pulp/skin from the seed before wiping the seed off on a branch and swallowing the remaining berry pulp.  First step is to find your berry – and our female looks rather comical as she struggles to control the rather large white berry in her beak.  She needs to squash it next, to begin separation of the seed, so she tends to shake it to and fro a little as she attempts to break it up.  Once she has it beginning to break up she flies straight off to a nearby tree where she wipes the seed off and consumes the rest.  Sometimes this is rapid, with her return within a few seconds. Other times she can seen be for some time whipping the split berry from side to side on a tree branch – some seeds just don’t want to be detached!

A few general pictures in a slide-show below – they’re not best quality but they were taken through a window with a camera operated by a bloke with a cricked neck hiding behind an aloe.  Tomorrow I’ll be posting a video…

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Mistletoe League Project surveys now fully functioning

The ‘Mistletoe League Project‘, collecting data on mistletoe on fruit trees – varietal preferences and management – is now fully functioning online.  This follows a couple of months of partial functionality, as the survey software was being closed down.  We now have new survey software courtesy of Lime, and all sections, including Part 2, are now live.

Full details are on the Project website but for those interested here are some  quick links to the various survey elements: