Bird Buddy Blog

The Many Birds of Christmas

Northern Cardinal / Ray Hennessy, Unsplash
Northern Cardinal / Ray Hennessy, Unsplash

Many nations of the world have at least one or two birds that they instantly link with the winter holiday season – aside from the unfortunate ones on the dinner table. In today’s post we take a look at some other festive birds.

In the UK, the one bird that everyone associates with Christmas is the European robin. So intertwined is this bird in the nation’s psyche, many still don’t know that the robin is a resident bird, although numbers are boosted by migrant arrivals in winter from colder parts of Europe. When the public was polled in 2015 as to which bird was their favourite, the robin not only won but took a third of all the votes. Despite other birds like the blue tit, blackbird, barn owl and wren being just as conspicuous in nature, the European robin is intertwined with Christmas due to a very wily marketing campaign by the Royal Mail postal service.

European Robin / Biel Morro, Unsplash
European Robin / Biel Morro, Unsplash

Cardinal cards

First launched in 1516, the person who received the delivery would pay, often large amounts. This led to illegal activity, creating distrust with the service, not helped by the fact that Oliver Cromwell appointed his spymaster general to oversee it which essentially meant he read it all before sending it on. Times change, and back under the rule of the monarchy after 1660, the postal service was given Royal approval and all its delivery men were given smart and regal-looking uniforms of bright red livery. Noting their familiarity to the flitting little bird seen in almost every garden and churchyard, the public dubbed these scurrying scarlet envoys as “robins”. However, the service was still for the privileged rich and began to suffer from a lack of funds.

“The public dubbed these scurrying scarlet envoys as ‘robins’”.

Fast forward to 1839, when English teacher, inventor, and social reformer Rowland Hill, disillusioned with the service, proposed a model that the entire world now bases their delivery services on – the sender pays the fee, but only a small charge that everyone can afford. He rightly predicted that so many more people would use it, and although uptake was slow, it was popular around Christmas time as people eagerly awaited to hear from distant loved ones with the year’s news. To monopolise this time of year, gift cards were launched depicting a little robin in a postman’s hat, carrying letters in its beak, surrounded by a festive, snowy scene. This remarkably insightful image meant that the robin and Christmas were intertwined in the nation’s mind forevermore.

In the US, a similarly although admittedly far more impressive scarlet bird epitomises Christmas and is seen on many a greetings card – the cardinal. Also known as the Red or Northern cardinal, this upright, perky bird is found throughout North and South America and it is thought that the by-and-large devout Catholic colonists of the land, upon seeing the showy crest and striking scarlet plumage of the male (females as with many dimorphic species, are less showy and pale brown with red tinges in their wings), they were reminded of the vestments worn by the highest-ranking member of the Church, and named the bird accordingly. Again, a resident bird, when seen against a brilliant white snowy backdrop, these birds are a vision to behold in winter.

Christmas card / Linnaea Mallette, Public Domain Pictures
Christmas card / Linnaea Mallette, Public Domain Pictures

Famous throughout the English-speaking world, there is one Christmas carol that contains a lot of birds, with some believing the entire song is about birds: The Twelve Days of Christmas. Starting on Christmas Day, the song marches across the calendar to terminate on Twelfth Night, or the evening of January 5th, the day before Epiphany when celebrations are traditionally meant to end. Believed to have originated as a children’s memory song in 1780, if you forgot a verse then you had to give away a kiss or a sweet. The first three lines of the song are explicitly about birds, and a stark reminder of the fact that many of them were in such numbers that it was normal to sing about them. The grey partridge was frequently seen in the orchards and countryside of rural England; the turtle dove was so common just 50 years ago in parts of Britain that it was more than three times as common as its relative, the collared dove, which is now 70 times more numerous than the turtle dove. French hens refer to the ubiquitous domestic chicken.

The Twelve Days of Christmas / Wikipedia
The Twelve Days of Christmas / Wikipedia

The fourth line of the song is now sung as “four calling birds”, but this is incorrect, the word “calling” having phonetically replaced the word “colly”; I always wondered what birds could they possibly mean, as surely all birds call at some point? Colly is an old word meaning black, or “coal-y”, which leads many scholars to believe these are in fact blackbirds. Detractors of this theory, but supporters of the song being about birds, state that it is actually the fifth line that refers to the blackbird, the gold rings being the distinctive orangey yellow eye ring. However, in the Scottish version of the song there are five goldspinks, their word for the European goldfinch. Again, others state that the original word was yoldring, a country-folk word for yellowhammer once upon a time.

“In the Scottish version of the song there are five goldspinks, their word for the European goldfinch”

The song progresses with more overt birds – geese and swans, six of the former laying and seven of the latter swimming; and for many the litany of avians ends there. But others argue this: the eight maids a-milking are in fact nightjars, their old country name being goatsucker. This name still lingers today, referring to their propensity to appear to suckle milk from the teats of goats, when in fact the admittedly peculiar-looking birds were feasting on the insects that would gather on the animal’s warm underbelly.

Swans / Drazen Neske, Unsplash
Swans / Drazen Neske, Unsplash

There are nine common cranes dancing, and not ladies; the lords-a-leaping are ten black grouse. Both of these birds perform extraordinary courtship dances, the cranes with their wings held aloft like ladies lifting their many-hooped skirts, and the grouse launching themselves skyward in a flurry of coat-tails and booted feet. Accompanying them in their flirting carousel are nine sandpipers tooting out a tune, and twelve woodpeckers beating out the hypnotic rhythm on the trees surrounding this merriest parade of feathered friends.

Try to keep it all year

Next time you hear this song, or see a card bearing the mighty yet petite robin or the splendid and confident cardinal, remember the words of a finally enlightened Scrooge (incidentally, once played by a duck) in that other Christmas Carol: “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”

The place that birds have in our lives is as fundamental and important as our celebration of cheerful and heart-warming times, but remember that their presence is not just for the holidays, but for all the year, for every year, for all time.