For the Birds Radio Program: Christmas

Original Air Date: Dec. 25, 1987

From wind socks to Snoopy’s Woodstock, Laura talks about the birds of Christmas.

Audio missing



(Recording–“Four calling birds…”)

The Christmas season comes with a lot of strange bird images–like the chipmunk’s song, celebrating birds doomed to be eaten. One’s true love would have to be a real chow hound to relish the eggs of a grand total of 42 geese a-laying, to say nothing of 30 French Hens and a full dozen partridges in pear trees. I’m assuming that the 42 swans a-swimming, the 36 calling birds and the 22 turtle doves were given for more aesthetic purposes, although that many birds in one house would quickly lead to some mighty unaesthetic results.

The Christmas bird many people are familiar with is the turkey–again for gastronomic reasons. The most improbably large turkey ever was the one Scrooge sent to Bob Crachet at the jolly conclusion of “A Christmas Carol”–one twice as big as Tiny Tim. Dickens wrote, “It was a turkey! He could never have stood upon his legs, that bird! He would have snapped ‘em off short in a minute, like sticks of sealing wax.”

Not all Christmas birds are intended for eating. Some Christmas wrapping I spotted this year showed cute little generic birds wearing earmuffs. Now that showed at least some sophistication–most people don’t realize that birds even have ears, or they mistakenly believe that the feather tufts on an owl’s head are its ears. In reality, all birds’ ears are large caverns hidden behind their cheek feathers. But they hardly need earmuffs–those cheek feathers serve as built-in muffs. Whenever I see pictures of birds wearing mufflers or jackets I think of how natural down jackets inspired much of modern man’s outdoor apparel. And birds wearing mittens on their wings are beyond my comprehension.

My favorite Christmas bird is Snoopy’s buddy Woodstock. I never have been able to figure out what species Woodstock is– to tell the truth, I’m not even sure what order he belongs to. His flight is distinctively non-aerodynamic, and his plumage looks suspiciously furry, but I like him none the less for his being unclassifiable and even unavian.

Birds turn up under a lot of trees this time of year. Loons are a particular favorite–from calendars and stationery to refrigerator magnets and thermometers. Most artists do loons right–from the ruby red eye to the checkerboard back, but you occasionally find a drawing or carving of a loon with a duck’s bill. The one loon gift I always laugh at is the loon windsock. Goose windsocks were developed for hunters to use to lure geese down to grain fields. But loons are utterly incapable of walking on land–their legs are as far back as penguins’, but they lack a penguin’s abdominal muscles for walking upright. The only ways a loon can get around are by flying or swimming. So if a loon windsock were at all functional, it would be only a cruel hoax.

At Christmas we often see images of angels, with their lovely white bird wings. Fairies, in contrast, never have bird wings. Besides the theological differences, the best way to tell angels from fairies is that angels always have bird wings, but fairies have insect wings–thin membranes like a bumblebee’s or mayfly’s.

Birds may have some strange connections to the holidays, but they have some sweet ones, too. Even as winter hunkers down for the duration, the solstice is behind us now–days are growing longer again. On icy blue mornings chickadees are already singing their spring song. With the renewal of hope that this season brings, I wish you the joy and peace that knowing the natural world can bring.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee) This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”