For the Birds Radio Program: Christmas and Birds

Original Air Date: Dec. 25, 2002

Why do birds figure so prominently in our Christmas cards and decorations? And what can we give them in return?

Duration: 4′52″


From the Christmas goose to the Audubon Christmas Bird Count to the partridge in a pear tree, Christmas celebrations are enriched with birds. Even the angels we have heard on high are depicted 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 larges 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 greeting 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 realized 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, you’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 from which to choose. Radiant red against an evergreen tree on white snow looks especially Christmassy, 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 year round. Come spring, laid-back homeowners who leave their grape vine Christmas wreaths out too long 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 humans who watch them. A very few birds are attracted to popcorn and cranberries, many nibble at suet balls, and chickadees and nuthatches are fond of cracked walnuts and pine cones packed with peanut butter. And if you have any squirrels on your gift list, they’ ll appreciate these, too.

My favorite holiday treat for my backyard birds is a handful of mealworms , which I set in a bowl in a second-story window feeder. My chickadees zip in the moment I crank open the window, and some light on my hand as I reach out to fill the bowl. Mealworms are extremely popular with other birds, too, but at this point the only other birds that have discovered them are a few nuthatches. It’s nice to keep them our little secret. If word got out, blue jays and any wintering robins might take over the feeder.

Cardinals often appreciate safflower, finches love thistle, jays and grouse take cracked com, and wintering sparrows and doves like white millet. We could set out just about any holiday food item and at least one species 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 Scandinavian delicacy that not even a starving gull would touch, lutefisk.