(Barbara Julien photo)

Suburban Wild: The birds of Christmas

Barbara Julien is a local writer and nature enthusiast

The English robin is probably the Christmas card industry’s favourite bird, its red breast glowing brightly against a thousand snowy scenes. The American robin which lives locally is its larger, paler cousin, which to us Vancouver Islanders may seem more connected with warm spring evenings than Christmas.

The partridge in the pear tree is the other most famous Christmas bird, but although B.C. has a Gray partridge we don’t see it in urban areas. It seems it was introduced from England as a game bird, but like many hunted species was hunted almost off the landscape. The chukar, another game bird in the partridge family (Phasianidae) was brought to North America in the 1940s from its homeland in the rocky uplands of Eurasia, but it too had only a short career on southern Vancouver Island, where the rocky uplands are largely built over. For us, these are the Ghost-birds of Christmas Past.

The Twelve Days of Christmas was only first printed in the mid-nineteenth century. It may have started as a children’s rhyme although other theories exist about the meanings in the verses and the symbolism of the birds. Each has its own significance, but overall the rhyme is about the riches which a suitor heaps upon his beloved. Partridge was said to be an aphrodisiac, and pears take the shape of a heart. The two turtle doves signify love and fidelity, the French hens, laying geese and swimming swans are food, and the five golden rings are thought to have referred to the rings around a finch or pheasant’s neck. The four calling birds are blackbirds, and the original phrase was “four collie birds”, collie meaning black and related to “coal” and “collier”. Our closest local example of the collie bird is the Red-winged blackbird, although only the males are black (with a red wing patch to attract mates); the females are brown and striped.

Birds are still a type of wealth today: natural wealth, in that they keep the urban as well as wild landscape alive by scattering seeds and acorns, eating plant-damaging insects and fertilizing the soil. Crows, gulls and herons enjoy the Christmas season the same way we do — by feasting — in their case on the bounty which high winter tides wash up along the shoreline where the birds find a wealth of interesting kelp, sea grasses and shellfish. For us, the challenge is to stem the rising tide of plastic and styrofoam that litters their smorgasbord.

The Christmas Bird Count of 2016 recorded 139 species in our area. Some of the over-wintering species such as chickadees, wrens, house sparrows, purple finches, rufous-sided towhees and Steller’s jays visit bird feeders and enjoy berries of holly and cotoneaster, as well as snowberries and other natives. Like us, they enjoy rich imported foods at Christmas, bulking up against the winter cold. When temperatures drop to the freezing mark they have a hard time, and more die of thirst than of hunger so it’s important to put out not only seeds but water for them, and to keep it unfrozen. Wild bird seed and natural suet make a smart Christmas gift for both friends and the birds, who when they find a nourishing garden will give the householders the gift of their presence.

Our greatest gift to them though would be to preserve their habitat. Tree loss means bird loss, so planting a tree gives back to the birds and all suburban wildlife, which is why many people buy a living Christmas tree to plant later in the garden. Whether a pear tree or an evergreen or conifer, all shrubbery helps, native or exotic. Ever-adaptive Mother Nature knows how to use everything.

Barbara Julien is a local writer and nature enthusiast who writes monthly about the various species making their home in Oak Bay.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Just Posted

Sooke stands up against bullying on Pink Shirt Day

This year’s theme, “Lift Each Other Up” reflects the origins of Pink Shirt Day

Fiddler on the Roof brings timely message to Oak Bay stage

Musical starts Friday in Dave Dunnet Theatre

Rain Walk returns Saturday to raise funds for cancer support

Rain Walk group Team Teal indebted to Inspire Health

Life complicated when water not secure

Water issues have real-life impacts in Sooke Region

UPDATED: Pat Bay Highway blockade ends three hours later

About 80 people from four major Peninsula First Nations blocking major highway

VIDEO: Province promotes ‘lifting each other up’ on 13th annual Pink Shirt Day in Victoria

Students, MLAs, community members gathered at B.C. Parliament Buildings Wednesday

Prepare for new coronavirus like an emergency, health minister advises

About 81,000 people around the world have now become ill with COVID-19

B.C. residents in Wet’suwet’en territory have right to police presence: Public Safety Minister

Nevertheless, Bill Blair said officials remain ‘very anxious’ for the barricades to come down

Winnipeg police investigating graffiti on RCMP and other buildings

Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen denounced the vandalism

B.C. seniors’ watchdog calls for better oversight after recent problems at Retirement Concepts care homes

‘There is no financial incentive right now to be a good operator’ - Isobel Mackenzie

Trucking company fined $175K for Kootenay creek fuel spill

Decision handed down last Friday in Nelson court

B.C. Liberals call for ban on foreign funds to pipeline protesters

Sierra Club, Wilderness Committee back Coastal GasLink blockades

Donations pour in for family who lost father, son in fatal crash on B.C. highway

Mike Cochlin and sons Liam and Quinn were travelling on Highway 5A

Vancouver Island RCMP officer assaulted during traffic stop

On Feb. 21, a member of the Comox Valley RCMP was assaulted… Continue reading

Most Read