Childhood is wonderful. A child can listen to a nursery rhyme, or recite it, or sing it, and just enjoy its silliness. A nursery rhyme like:
Sing a song of six pence,
a pocketful of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds
baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
the birds began to sing.
Wasn’t that a dainty dish
to set before the king?
A child can just enjoy that. An adult, with an adult mind and an adult curiosity, begins to wonder about such a nursery rhyme. How do you bake birds in a pie without cooking them beyond any ability to sing? And why blackbirds? - since every black bird I know of can’t sing worth a toot.
As an inquiring adult, you undoubtedly recognize that this nursery rhyme comes from a very different time and place, with its sixpence and its king.
Like most of our nursery rhymes, its origin is England. It first appeared in print in 1744 in Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, but its origins are far older. Shakespeare may have alluded to the rhyme in Twelfth Night, where Sir Toby Belch tells a clown: “Come on; there is sixpence for you: let's have a song.”
It certainly came from the era when kings ruled, and no expense was spared to indulge and entertain the ruler. “A sixteenth-century amusement was to place live birds in a pie. An Italian cookbook from 1549 (translated into English in 1598) contained such a recipe: ‘to make pies so that birds may be alive in them and flie out when it is cut up’ ....” (Wikipedia) At the wedding of Marie de Medici and Henry IV of France in 1600, the first surprise at the banquet came when the guests sat down, unfolded their napkins and saw songbirds fly out.
That probably deals with the perplexing part of the rhyme about baking birds in a pie. Those who catered to over-indulging the king were always on the lookout for ways of providing the monarch with new amusements. But why blackbirds?
Now we need to be fair. These black birds are in fact, blackbirds; they are all in the New World Icterid family. Also in this family are the meadowlarks, the orioles, and the Bobolink, and these are all “blackbirds “ - Icterids - which are not completely black and which can sing. Indeed, they are among the best songsters when they are busy with their breeding activities.
Other black birds which cannot sing are in the Corvid family: the crows and the ravens. Our local crow, the American Crow, serenades with variations of a tenor scaled “caw.” Our Common Raven is the baritone or bass voice: “Cronk, caa-rack, cu-ruck.” Both of these songbirds (yes, they are songbirds) have tremendous variety in their language, but none of that language would be considered musical except by those with the most perverse taste in music. I do realize there are some people with such perverse musical tastes.
European monarchs knew the big black birds. The raven is familiar in Europe. So are many other Corvids: crows, choughs, rooks, and jackdaws. Can you imagine the size of the pie that would be required to get four and twenty crows inside? Even at an oversized banquet for newly wedded monarchs it would overwhelm the royal table.
Those same European monarchs knew nothing of our blackbirds - Icterids - until voyages of discovery began returning with specimens. Those specimens would have been remarkably unfit for a pie, much less capable of singing.
Here is the description of the Common Blackbird’s song in Birds of Europe: “Song well known for its melodic, mellow tone, a clear and loud fluting (almost in major key) at slow tempo and on wide, often sliding scale, with soft twitter appended; verses rather short ...”
Having been confined in a pie, I can certainly imagine that these birds would burst into song upon being released, a song worthy of a monarch’s chamber music gathering, or even a joyous wedding banquet.
Good for you, birds!
Note: The blackbirds in the painting look like grackles, not Europe's Common Blackbird. The painting comes from a very old book which I own of nursery rhymes and I believe is in the public realm. The photo of the Common Blackbird is not mine; the credit on the photo is www.wildanimalsonline.com. I believe the photo is in the public realm; mI I am wrong about either, I will remove it.