Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Turdus torquatus – ring ouzel

Turdus torquatus

Turdus torquatus L.
Family: Turdidae

The ring ouzel is the rarest of Ireland’s breeding thrush family. The distinctive male resembles a blackbird with a broad white crescent on the breast. Whilst not particularly retiring, its breeding habitat is upland mountain scree and as such ring ouzel requires some effort to see. Its melodic singing on the breeding sites or their alarm ‘chac’ calls on migration are often the first indications of its presence.

In brief

  • Found at higher mountains such as the Mournes or at coastal sites during migration

  • Requires upland scree with associated bracken and/or heather with nearby grassland for feeding

  • Best time to see the species is on spring or autumn passage

  • The ring ouzel is Red listed on both the UK and Ireland BOCC lists, and is of European Conservation Concern

  • The reasons for decline/extinction are not well known but likely to be linked to loss of habitat, afforestation and perhaps competition with blackbird and mistle thrush.

Species description
The ring ouzel is a member of the thrush family, the male having the appearance of a male blackbird with an obvious white crescent on the throat/breast. The female is a much subdued brown version of the male with the crescent often barely visible. Both male and female have a ‘frosty’ appearance due to pale edgings of the wing feathers.

Life cycle
The ring ouzel arrives on the breeding grounds in April and usually nests on rock outcrops and ledges and, less frequently, on heather slopes. Both parents are involved in feeding young and usually two broods are reared. Migration begins in early September and continues through October. On a very few occasions birds have over wintered. Most birds migrate to the Mediterranean for the winter months.

Similar species
The only possible confusion species is a partially albino blackbird.

How to see this species
The best chance to see one in Northern Ireland is to respond rapidly to a report on Flightline. The ring ouzel has only been recorded as breeding, or suspected as breeding, in Northern Ireland on about 14 occasions since 1974. Most of these have been in the Mourne mountains with single records from both Counties Antrim and Londonderry, though these may have been passage birds which often frequent potential breeding sites.

Spring and autumn passage on Copeland Island, County Down has fallen dramatically from the 1950s and currently it is a very rare visitor. Elsewhere in Northern Ireland, it has been recorded on passage less than 50 times since 1951. The best areas to see ring ouzels are, in general, the same areas where they formerly bred – Rathlin Island, County Antrim has a good track record for occurrences.

In the rest of the UK, Scotland holds the largest density of breeding birds.

Current status
Thompson (1850) describes his first encounters with ring ouzels as follows.

"It first became familiar to me in the glens or ravines cleft in the range of mountains lying westward of Belfast, every one of which … boasted a pair or more of these birds …"

Clearly, the ring ouzel was formerly much commoner in Northern Ireland and was known to breed in every county except Armagh, which has little suitable habitat. The decline was noted through to the 1950s when it was thought to be still well-established in County Down (four pairs noted in 1952), nesting sparsely in County Fermanagh, but almost unknown in County Antrim. Little else has been documented on its former breeding.

The Breeding Atlas (1968-1972) indicated the species to be breeding in only one 10km square (County Down), while the Breeding Atlas (1988-1991) showed the species to be breeding in two 10km squares, one in Down and one in Antrim.

Currently, the ring ouzel is regarded by some as an extinct breeding species in Northern Ireland.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?

  • Red listed on the UK BOCC list

  • Red listed on the Ireland BOCC list.

It is a species of European Conservation Concern, and is listed as Rare in the Irish Red Data Book.

Threats/Causes of decline
Ring ouzels need mature heather or bracken on steep rocky slopes for nesting and a mosaic of upland heather, grassland and bracken provides the best conditions. They often fly to in-bye pasture to feed, especially in early morning, if there is insufficient short grassland on nearby hills. During the breeding season, they eat earthworms, leatherjackets, insects and spiders. Moorland berries such as bilberry, crowberry and rowan are important in the late summer and autumn.

In Ireland, the reasons for its possible extinction as a breeding bird are not well understood. The reasons for the UK decline include re-afforestation, disturbance by walkers, agricultural improvements and competition with blackbirds and mistle thrushes.

Conservation of this species

Current action

  • Former / potential breeding sites in the Mournes safeguarded through ASSI/SAC/SPA designation

  • Implementation of the Northern Ireland Habitat Action Plan for Upland Heathland.

Proposed objectives/actions

  • Future planned censusing of potential breeding sites has been proposed to ascertain the species status. This has already commenced in Donegal where 10 to 15 pairs were reported in 2002.

What you can do
Report any observed ring ouzels. In Northern Ireland all observed ring ouzels on breeding habitat during the breeding season should be reported to RSPB (028 9049 1547) or on migration to Northern Ireland Birdwatchers’ Association, Flightline (028 9146 7408).

Further information

A simple identification page provided by RSPB.

Red List species criteria.

RSPB Advice for Land Management for ring ouzels.

Birdwatch Ireland Upland Birds Survey.

Some excellent photographs from Google.

Northern Ireland Habitat Action Plans

Further information on ASSIs

Deane, C.D. (1954). The Birds of Northern Ireland. Belfast.

Gibbons, D.W., Reid, J.B. and Chapman, R.A. (1993). The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland 1988 –1991. Poyser

Kennedy, P.G., Ruttledge, R.F. and Scroope, C.F. (1954). The Birds of Ireland. Dublin.

Northern Ireland Birdwatchers’ Association (1981-2000). Northern Ireland Bird Reports. Belfast.

Sharrock, J. (1976). The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Britain and Ireland BTO/IWC.

Thompson, W. (1850). The Natural History of Ireland. Reeve, Benham and Reeve, London

Ussher & Warren (1900). The Birds of Ireland. Gurney and Jackson, London.

Whilde, A. (1993). Threatened mammals, birds, amphibians and fish in Ireland. Irish Red Data Book 2: Vertebrates. HMSO, Belfast.

Text written by:
Allen & Mellon Environmental Ltd.

iNaturalist: Species account : iNaturalist World Species Observations database