For the Birds Radio Program: Christmas Birds

Original Air Date: Dec. 22, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks Christmas birds, from cardinals and chickadees to Snoopy’s pal Woodstock. (4:11) Date confirmed

Audio missing


Christmas! It’s that time of the year when Christians commemorate a great and beautiful event in their faith, and when both Christians and many non-Christians celebrate a season of love and spiritual renewal. Merchants joyously deck the malls for the biggest sales of the fiscal year. And everyone marks the month with birds. From the Christmas goose or turkey to the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count to that partridge in a pear tree, Christmas celebrations are enriched with birds. Even angels we have heard on high are pictured with lovely feathered wings.

Birds bedeck Christmas decorations from ornaments and candlesticks to napkins and wrapping paper, but are perhaps most conspicuous on greeting cards. The National Wildlife Federation’s holiday catalog displays a huge variety of cards with natural themes, the largest portion illustrated with birds from nuthatches, waxwings, and finches to loons, ducks, and puffins.

That’s to be expected from a nature organization, but mass-marketed Christmas cards also depict birds. On a recent visit to a typical shopping mall card store, we found birds everywhere. The species found on the widest variety of cards was the chickadee. Accurate renditions vie with charmingly unrealistic chickadees, one even drawn with a jingle bell tied with ribbon around its neck. That chickadee was perched, of course, the artist apparently realizing that the weight of even a small bell would ground a bird who, naked as a jaybird, weighs a mere third of an ounce. You could mail three chickadees with a single stamp, but if even one of them wore a jingle bell, they’d need extra postage.

The chickadee’s homey sweetness and warmth make it a fitting symbol of the season, but artists preferring bright colors have a kaleidoscope of avian attractions to choose from. Radiant red against an evergreen tree on white snow looks especially Christmasy, so cardinals are naturally popular. The other primary colors are represented by brilliant Blue Jays and the sunniest yellow bird in the world, Snoopy’s own little Woodstock. Evidence of wild birds can be found even on religious cards. We haven’t yet found any pigeons on stable rafters above the manger, but sometimes tiny generic songbirds peek in at the sleeping Babe, and one fancy, gilded Hallmark card shows an angel wearing the salmon-pink wing linings of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

At Christmas, many people want to set out gifts for the birds that bring us so much joy the rest of the year. Come spring, those laid-back Minnesotans who leave their grape vine Christmas wreaths out may find House Finches nesting in them, but in the dead of winter, birds prefer more immediate pleasures, especially food treats. A sunflower seed feeder is a gift that keeps on giving, providing nourishment for birds and food for the soul for the humans who watch them.

Real cardinals are at least a little more likely to show up at a Northland bird feeder than at the North Pole. Some birds are attracted to strings of popcorn and cranberries, many nibble at suet balls, and chickadees and nuthatches are fond of cracked walnuts and pine cones packed with peanut butter. (Squirrels love these snacks, too!) We could set out just about any holiday food item and at least one kind of bird would appreciate it, except, of course, for one seasonal food item that’s as far from lovely and ethereal as a bird could get, the Minnesota delicacy that not even a starving gull would touch—lutefisk.