November 8th. That’s when Christmas arrived for me. I was minding my own business enjoying a game of pool at the Harbour Club when I was struck by the realisation that a Christmas advert was playing on TV. I won’t tell you which one, as I wouldn’t like to contribute to the unnecessary bombardment of commercial over-enthusiasm we will all have to suffer in the coming month. Needless to say it was one of the sugary, insipid, cartoon affairs targeting small children and guilt-ridden parents. Fortunately I am neither, but I must confess to a scrooge-like intolerance for having this inflicted upon me so early in the year. Now that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy Christmas, but I prefer Christmas to be towards the end of December, at a point when I can concentrate fully on all that is good about the festive season. So it is with a heavy heart that I embark upon this article, but I take comfort from knowing that you will not be able to read it until December, by which time we’ll all be eating tiny misshapen chocolates from behind advent calendar windows.
For this is an article about the birds of the festive season. It is not a wish list of the species you should be on the lookout for (although some you may well see) but a stroll through some of our cultural associations between birds and yuletide. Some of these associations are based on prevalence of winter sightings, others on symbolism, and some are related to the chilly conditions. For all these reasons, there are a handful of bird species that you will encounter more frequently at this time of year. I would imagine that all of you could look at adverts, wrapping paper, recipes and Christmas cards and identify a select band of repeat offenders. Let’s start with the obvious one.
As a seven year old child I fell into the classic trap of identifying the robin as a winter species. I was at a field meeting for the Young Ornithologists Club (the YOC – not an organisation to reel in members with its uber-trendy nomenclature! Thankfully the youth branch of the RSPB has been revamped since then). We were asked whether the robin was a summer or winter bird, and eager to impress my new found fellow young ornithologists, I leapt forth with the answer that it was, of course, a winter bird. How did I know? Because I had seen one (I can only assume the same one) on every Christmas card, present, wrapping and advert under the ever shortening sun. And yet a moment’s conscious thought would have reminded me that this is a species that we see in summer too. The robin is possibly a victim of a highly successful marketing strategy. It certainly has had religious connections for hundreds of years, and it is one of the few species to remain territorial all year round, so will sing in winter more than many species do. However, it was likely introduced to cards to symbolise postal workers delivering at Christmas time – the red breast closely matching the uniform of our native ‘posties’, and the original cards containing images of the robin actually carrying the mail. Over time the association with Pat was lost, but the robin continued on its wintery way to become our national bird. Not so much victim as victor.
The Partridge and associated friends
I will assume here that you are all well versed (and perhaps rehearsed) in the art of Christmas songs. In one particularly popular ditty, a whole menagerie of birds, people and inanimate objects are lumped together in descending numerical order, culminating in a partridge (and a pear tree, for the benefit of those who claim the RSPB only cares about birds!). This seems most unlikely to me, since partridges are generally ground dwelling birds, and I have never seen one in a tree at all. Currently, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see the grey, or ‘English’ partridge at all, as the population continues to decline. The red-legged, or ‘French’ partridge is our bird’s continental cousin, and has become the more common of the two in many places, including Cornwall. It is unclear which of the two species the song refers to. Turtle doves are similarly scarce in the UK. This species has long been associated with marital tenderness, though I do not know whether that is a reason for its inclusion in the song. A combination of habitat loss and hunting on migration has reduced the population of turtle doves in the UK to a quarter of what it was 30 years ago. White doves (though not our native turtle doves) feature on many cards as symbols of peace, with obvious religious connotations. Swans often feature as a representation of love. The image of two swan necks bent into a heart shape adorns many cards, particularly those produced for Valentine’s Day. For geese the association may be more practical. It is likely that a number of game birds, both wild and domestic (and we can throw the French hens into this category), will feature on our Christmas menus as usual this year. In some cases they will be stuffed inside each other to create a Russian doll effect, with up to ten species crammed together. Though they do not feature in the song, and are neither wild nor native to our shores, it would be wrong to deliver a Christmas sermon without at least mentioning the turkey! Another bird-related line from the song concentrates on four ‘calling birds’. One argument suggests that these are blackbirds, as it could derive from an original term ‘collie’, which means black and comes from an old word for coal. It is to this species, and it’s nearest and dearest, that we turn next.
Blackbirds and other Thrushes
These are birds which have a genuine association with winter. Although we have a resident population of blackbirds, song and mistle thrush in the UK, their numbers are swelled by other birds flying south to winter in our milder climate. With these come redwing and fieldfare, which are only present here in the winter. The redwing is similar to a song thrush, but with a red flash under the wing and a more prominent eye stripe. The fieldfare is a larger bird, with blues and greys coating its back, but still maintaining some of the spotted chest we see on other thrushes. Both of these species will come to gardens in search of food, and have a particular fondness for apples and berries. They can be seen currently stripping berries from our hedgerows, and shortly will be performing the same trick on Christmas cards across the land (especially if you purchase your cards from venerable RSPB establishments!).
For a UK birdwatcher, Christmas is by far the best time to see a penguin. As a southern hemispheric family, penguins are not accustomed to arriving on our shores in considerable numbers. But an association between penguins and cold conditions has left them the dubious honour of featuring in our Christmas thoughts (though I’m yet to find a recipe that includes one!). It is worth remembering that our winter will actually be their summer, and I would be interested to find out whether penguins grace the covers of Australian Christmas cards. The majestic emperor penguins will be huddled together, braving the elements in a bid to raise their single chicks. Incidentally, it would be a fair assumption that the fascinating but treacle-coated film ‘March of the Penguins’ will be part of our TV schedules in the coming weeks!
There will, of course, be plenty of actual birds to see during the winter period, and there are few things more satisfying that working up a sizeable appetite on those crisp winter’s mornings. For me the Boxing Day birdwatching trip, accompanied by my binoculars and turkey sandwiches, has become an annual pilgrimage. But for those enjoying a glass of sherry by a warm fire, take comfort from those birds who have found a way into our living rooms and bring us that bit of festive cheer, even if it is only November!