For the Birds Radio Program: Birds on Christmas Cards

Original Air Date: Nov. 30, 2003 (estimated date)

What birds are most often seen on holiday greeting cards?

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As days get shorter and more and more birds head south for the winter, I find myself searching for birds wherever I can, including the greeting card shelves in shopping malls. There’s a surprising array of birds depicted on Christmas cards.

If we use the biological definition of birds—the only living things with feathers—then angels with their feathered wings qualify. Snoopy’s little Woodstock appears on lots of cards, too, and most stores carry at least one card with seven swans a’swimming, six geese a’laying, four calling birds, three French hens and two turtle doves, or at least that partridge in a pear tree. Some birds sport Santa hats, bright red bows, or other Christmas decorations—I’ve even seen a chickadee burdened with jingle bells that in real life would weigh twice as much as the chickadee. Many greeting card birds could not be found in any field guide, being designed by artists who either don’t pay attention to real birds or don’t find nature lovely enough. As in Disney cartoons, sometimes Christmas card birds form odd associations, such as little songbirds perched peacefully beside an owl who, in reality, would gobble them down as quickly as most humans would carve up their Christmas goose or turkey. But real, natural-looking birds appear on a surprising variety of Christmas cards, too.

Some seem to be chosen for their color. Against a green conifer, what could look more Christmassy than a cardinal? A scarlet tanager’s colors would look just as pretty, but tanagers spend their holidays down in South America and this time of year they’re not even red—they replace their breeding plumage with olive feathers for the winter. Cardinals maintain their brilliant colors throughout the year, and are common feeder birds that most American artists have seen in their own backyards. They even seem to capture the holiday spirit in their song, “Cheer, cheer, cheer!”

The other two primary colors are also represented on cards, usually by goldfinches or evening grosbeaks and blue jays or bluebirds. Of course, real goldfinches aren’t very yellow at Christmastime, when they’re wearing their dull winter plumage. But ornithological accuracy isn’t a primary concern in greeting card design. Also, many cards with a manger scene show birds in the rafters that have never appeared in Bethlehem.

White doves appear in many cards more because of their religious significance than because they are the color of snow. Swans are also used, perhaps as much because they symbolize faithfulness and devotion as because they set off snow scenes to perfection. And many birds with subtle colors are also found on holiday greeting cards, from Canada geese to Carolina wrens. Some of them can easily be found in realistic Minnesota Christmas scenes, but others seem to be there simply to conjure a generic feeling of nature or because the artist happens to like that species. Penguins sometimes appear in North Pole scenes despite the fact that penguins are strictly birds of the southern hemisphere.

Feeder birds, from downy woodpeckers to nuthatches and finches, appear on many cards. Bird feeding is a natural holiday theme because it embodies both the spirit of giving, as we share our bounty with our backyard birds, and the spirit of receiving, since feeding birds is a gift that rewards the giver as much as the recipients, attracting natural beauty to our backyards.

One bird that appears on cards almost as often as cardinals is the black-capped chickadee. Though chickadees lack Christmas colors, they do capture the innocence, exuberance and cheerfulness of a small child on Christmas morning. And when the temperature plummets well below zero and the north wind is raging, a flock of chickadees could warm the heart and raise the spirits of Scrooge himself. What better symbol of the holiday spirit can there be?