Avian Expert Articles

Christmas Traditions For The Birds

photo from the National Library of Norway
photo from the National Library of Norway

Want to start the year ahead off on the right foot? Do what the Scandinavians do on Christmas … spread some birdseed around the outside of your home. According to folklore, offering wild birds a Christmas feast will bring you good luck in the new year. Some people place the seed on the doorstep, a fence line, or on the roof. (So go ahead and top your family and friends’ gifts with a little bag of seed as a gesture of well wishes for the new year!)

The Swedish tradition is to set aside the last sheaf of harvest grain and bundle it together into a Christmas sheaf (kind of like an edible Christmas wreath!) and lift it up high on a pole or place it on a rooftop on Christmas Eve for the wild birds to dine on Christmas morning. Here’s a snippet of a poem: 

The Christmas Sheaf
“The fields of kindness bear golden grain,”
Is a proverb true and tried;
Then scatter thine alms, with lavish hand,
To the waiting poor outside;
And remember the birds, and the song they sang,
When the year rolls round again:
“The Christ-child came on earth to bless
The birds as well as men.”

—Mrs. A. M. Tomlinson

There’s also an interesting Norwegian Christmas legend that animals can talk human at midnight on Christmas. (Well, many of our birds can and will talk on Christmas, but hopefully not at midnight!) The story goes that the animals at the stable where Christ was born were stirred awake by the light from the star that guided visitors to Bethlehem. The animals then discover that they could talk. They bicker at first and won’t even let the humans into the stable (including the pregnant Mary and Joseph). They ultimately see the error of their ways, let the humans in and then head to spread news of Christ’s birth … but by then it’s too late; they lose their ability to talk.

Photo by Stephen Wolfe, Columbus, OH
Photo by Stephen Wolfe, Columbus, OH

Cardinals at Christmas

Many bird lovers receive (and send) holiday cards and gifts with a cardinal on it. Why, exactly, is the cardinal the bird we often see on holiday motifs? First off, a little about cardinals. These passerine birds belong to the family Cardinalidae and are found in North and South America. (Unlike parrots, passerines have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back.)

The cardinal is named after the high-ranking member of the Catholic Church that goes by the same name. The colonists were said to bestow the name because the male’s red coloring and crest reminded them of the vestments worn by Catholic cardinals. (As with most parrots, the male of the species is the more colorful; females are pale brown with tinges of warm red). The cardinal has a year-round presence (no migrating for the winter!) so the sight of this vibrant red bird against a snowy backdrop makes it a vision to behold during winter.

American robin by Jonathan Oleyar, courtesy the National Audubon Society
American robin by Jonathan Oleyar, courtesy the National Audubon Society

Christmas Bird Count Is Underway

The National Audubon Society hosts a Christmas Bird Count that runs from December 14 through January 5 every year. Bird enthusiasts have an opportunity to be part of this 100-plus year holiday tradition to collect data that helps ornithologists and conservation biologists ascertain how the birds of the Americas are faring over time. But before you go and start counting birds, know that there is well-defined methodology to the bird count. There’s an established 15-mile wide diameter circle of count areas, which is organized by a count compiler. You need to contact the circle compiler in your area to make arrangements. After touching base with a count organizer, you might soon be counting birds from your front porch or backyard, and, in doing so, giving the gift of volunteerism. For more info, visit the Christmas Bird Count section of its website.

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