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Sing a Song of Sixpence

Sing a song of sixpence,
pocket full of rye,
four and twenty blackbirds
baked in a pie.

 When the pie was opened,
birds began to sing:
isn’t that a dainty dish
to set before the King?

The King is in his counting-house
counting out his money;
the Queen is in the parlor
eating bread and honey;
the Maid is in the garden
hanging up the clothes,

 when down swoops a Blackbird
and snaps off her nose!

Cover illustration for Randolph Caldecott’s Sing a Song for Sixpence (1880)

There are many interpretations to this curious nursery rhyme, dating to the 18th century. It’s been traced to the 16th-century practice of placing live songbirds in a pie (who wouldn’t want live animals flying out of their prepared food?), to various historical events and folklorish symbols, and even to a coded message used to recruit crew members for pirate ships. Lord Byron, James Joyce, Virgina Woolf, Agatha Christie, George Orwell, and Roald Dahl all referenced the ditty, and it’s appeared in songs by The Beatles, The Monkees, Radiohead, Tom Waits, and others. Obviously this mysterious little rhyme continues to captivate our popular consciousness.

As we approach the equinox, I’m anxious to spy our returning colonies of Red-winged blackbirds — the males, glossy black with their brilliant scarlet-and-yellow shoulder patches, puffing up or hiding (depending on their level of confidence), and belting out their conk-la-ree songs. And the more subdued females, with their brown colorations and clever camouflaging — so much shyer than their male counterparts.

Ever regal: Male Red-winged blackbird in the Florida wetlands

Watching over his brood… But I see YOU!

Puffin’ and hollerin’ away

And the GIRLS…

Always the shy ones: Female Red-winged blackbird in the Florida wetlands

Flittering among the reeds

Lovely girl against the shallow waters

46 Comments Post a comment
  1. Oh wow, stunning photographs. They look quite a lot like our Starlings. Hate to think of them being baked in pies though.

    September 21, 2012
    • Thanks so much!! I love starlings, but we don’t have them…

      I know, can you believe the ridiculousness of humans, sometimes? Especially the absurdity among the aristocracy…

      September 21, 2012
  2. Pam #

    Adorable! Beautiful pics of blackbirds. I remember it took me awhile when I was first birdwatching to figure out the female plumage.

    September 21, 2012
    • Ditto! I always wondered why they were together, and why the “brown” birds were being so well guarded by the other blackbirds, hahah!

      Thanks so much. 🙂

      September 21, 2012
  3. Oh wait…it’s a blah blah blah …warbler ! LOL ! You really do such an amazing job at capturing these birds. I have total bird photo envy. 🙂

    September 21, 2012
    • Hahahahah!!!! No wait.. It’s a one-eyed-one-horned-flying-purple-warbler-bellied-sparrow.

      Thanks so much, lady. 🙂

      September 22, 2012
  4. Wonderful photos of these birds! The settings and backgrounds are perfect!
    Plus I would would much rather see them this way rather then have some burst out of my dinner tonight.

    September 21, 2012
    • HEH! Exactly….!

      Thanks so much; that intense green is the wetland waters — I love how it comes out in the images sometimes.

      September 22, 2012
  5. I never knew they actually put live birds in pies! So… what next? You have your pie pilling dotted with feathers and bird droppings, and little birds hopping around dripping pie on your furniture? I know they ate songbirds (another song comes to mind, the jaunty/horrible “Alouette, gentille alouette…”) but surely they plucked and deboned them first…?

    September 21, 2012
    • pie *filling*, I meant

      September 21, 2012
    • Isn’t that awful…? I can’t fathom. The aristocracy just seemed ever-bored, much to the detriment of “lesser” people and animals. Sad.

      September 22, 2012
  6. I love it! I spent hours as a young gal wading through marshes to spy on the red-winged blackbirds, conduct my own informal surveys of their nests and lovely blue eggs.They’ll always be dear to me. Great photos! I’m having a hard time picking a favorite today.

    September 21, 2012
    • Aw, I’m so thrilled that these images reminded you of such wonderful times! I LOVE their eggs — aren’t they gorgeous? Such beautiful blues… I can’t wait till their colonies return to our area — expect more images, yay!! 🙂

      September 22, 2012
  7. Love these photos! You are right about who’d want live animals flying out of prepared food, but how do you think the birds felt being surrounded by pie crust!! Great post.

    September 21, 2012
    • Thanks so very much!!

      Can you fathom the cruelty of the aristocracy?? Not just towards animals, of course… The stories are endless. Ever-bored, I imagine.

      September 22, 2012
  8. wonderful thoughts and photos. nicely put…. hats off and thank YOU for sharing>> the informations and those shiny birds…. i mean photos 🙂

    September 21, 2012
    • Thanks so very much!! I love these guys — their songs are just wonderful. 🙂

      September 22, 2012
      • i ll search youtube to listen to… u raised my curiosity 🙂 🙂

        September 22, 2012
  9. I love that song and that bird so much, that I recently found a little ceramic black bird to put in my pies so that they don’t overflow! haha ❤

    September 21, 2012
    • Oh that’s FANTASTIC!! I’ve never seen such a thing… Love it. 🙂

      September 22, 2012
  10. Wonderful photographs! Beautiful birds.and you make areat connection with the verse. Thank you for sharing.

    September 21, 2012
    • Thanks so very much! I love this ditty, just for its odd, historical significance…. 🙂

      September 22, 2012
  11. Great photos of these. We had lots of them here early in summer, but they stayed only a little time this year.

    September 21, 2012
    • Thanks so much! See, I miss them in the summer… I can’t wait to hear them again soon! All their nests and lovely blue eggs. 🙂

      September 22, 2012
  12. Beautiful. Their call always reminds me of being a kid because my mom taught me to recognize it. She always said it sounded like a rusty swing to her. I watched some amazing videos of red winged black bird flocks a few months back (for something I was writing) and it was amazing. I could watch all day.

    September 22, 2012
    • Ooooh, I love it — a rusty swing, that’s a PERFECT description! Honestly. Another commented as their call sounding “metallic”, and that’s very true. But the rusty swing is exactly on-target.

      I adore seeing them and hearing their calls throughout our wetlands — I miss them in the summer. 🙂

      September 22, 2012
  13. Beautiful shots of blackbirds – I hadn’t realized they could look so different.

    September 22, 2012
    • Thanks so much!

      Isn’t it amazing how differently the males and females look? It took me awhile to realize… And so many don’t know the females are blackbirds!

      September 22, 2012
  14. I’m surprised to see them here! They’re one of my favorite birds, firmly connected to my childhood cornfields and the prairies. When they migrate through here, they don’t stay around the water, but for a time they’re everywhere, clinging to the rigging of boats instead of grass stems. Any port in a storm, I guess!

    September 22, 2012
    • Exactly! They’re very brave and tenacious little guys (well, the males at least — the girls are so shy!)…. But they love our wetlands, and haunt our shallow waters. But that’s where I usually see them.

      September 22, 2012
  15. The sound of the red-winged blackbirds coming from hidden places in the swamp…. lots of birdwatching memories connected to that metallic sound! My mother was a birder, dragged us everywhere, including the sewage treatment plants (Nooo, not again, Mom!), and came to be an expert. At 87+ she still studies and draws… >:-D

    Ooo, FeyGirl, perhaps you would enjoy (or already know) this site: My mother subscribes and loves the mystery bird posts!

    September 22, 2012
    • “That metallic sound” — that’s such a perfect description!

      Thanks for the link… I’ll definitely have to investigate! I know some of our birds well, but I’m definitely no professional birder — I rely on their vast knowledge when I’m out and about and see a new critter, hee! There’s a sewage plant near us that’s preserved lots of Everglades habitat — a rare watershed, with TONS of rookeries! It’s a wonderful place for birds. And people rarely visit. But there are hundreds of acres… We often go for hiking! 🙂

      September 22, 2012
      • Isn’t that something to NOT contemplate: the watershed was preserved because of the sewage plant.

        I’ve found most birders to be very willing to help and love to give pointers.

        September 22, 2012
  16. My immediate thought when I saw the red winged blackbirds was not of them being in a pie lol (made me think of an episode of the Tudors about that) but of being fishing for rainbow trout in Colorado and hearing them singing. I love their song.

    September 22, 2012
    • Ah, see — that’s a far more beautiful image!! I can’t bear to think of any animal being used for such bored aristocratic torture, but for some reason I had nursery rhymes on the mind…

      September 24, 2012
  17. That is just CRAZY, how the female “blackbirds” aren’t black at all!! Who knew!!! I adore these guys. They say “summer in the sloughs of Michigan” to me from my childhood, like nobody’s business. We have them here too, in Arkansas, but I think they maybe just pass through migratorily. If that’s a word. Well it is in my world. At this hour of the day. Cheerio, conk-la-ree.

    September 22, 2012
    • I adore their songs… Some of the others commented that they sounded metallic, or like a “rusty swing,” and they’re dead-on!

      We’re waiting for their colonies here, so they’re probably flying from your area, hee! Isn’t it great — and always funny — to see how much more brilliant the males are created in the bird kingdom? I do believe the shy females have their clever camouflaging though, for protection — to better protect their nests. Evolution at its best!

      September 24, 2012
  18. I am always amazed by male animals that look more beautiful than their females. Wonderful captures! Sooo, that Mrs. blackbirds look like! didn’t know until now 😉

    September 23, 2012
    • Isn’t it great — and always funny — to see how much more brilliant the males are created in the bird kingdom? I do believe the shy females have their clever camouflaging though, for protection — to better protect their nests. Evolution at its best!

      Thanks so much… 🙂

      September 24, 2012
  19. I thought I knew the poem/ditty, but I didn’t recall anyone getting their nose bitten off. ❗

    Loved all your red-winged blackbird photos. On one occasion they stopped by my backyard bird feeder for a snack which quite surprised me! Although they are in the area, they don’t normally do bird feeders. I think they must have been in transit.

    Also I have to add that the female red-winged blackbird isn’t at all shy if she thinks you are too close to her nest. In fact I think she’s more aggressive in the male!

    September 24, 2012
    • Apparently that last verse has a few different endings… But many involve a chomped nose!

      Thanks so much — our blackbirds are always the most gracious models. I’ve only seen them a handful of times at our feeders, too — and we’re not far from the wetlands. And you’re absolutely right — if there’s a nest and / or babies to protect, momma’s no longer shy!!

      September 25, 2012
  20. Such a lovely post from start to finish!!!!

    September 25, 2012
    • Thanks so much! I love our blackbirds… I can’t wait till (more) return! 🙂

      September 26, 2012
  21. seen many a red wing black bird but never so close

    October 8, 2012
    • 🙂 They allow us to get very close in our wetlands, especially when the colonies are around… But the telephoto certainly helps!

      October 17, 2012

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