(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.

 

Just Posted

Victoria restaurant gets one-year extension after facing renoviction

Pluto’s Restaurant set to stay at its Cook Street location until March 2021

Woman injured during West Shore RCMP arrest prompts police watchdog investigation

IIO investigating to determine if police action or inaction linked to woman’s injuries

Victoria Foundation’s community grants support 109 local non-profits

Foundation delivers $2.8 million in grant money to local organizations

Strathcona hotel complex venues closed due to ‘construction issues’

Business announced closure on Thursday afternoon on Facebook

‘Not a decision I came to lightly:’ Scheer to resign as Conservative leader

Decision comes after weeks of Conservative infighting following the October election

‘British Columbians are paying too much’: Eby directs ICBC to delay rate application

Attorney General David Eby calls for delay in order to see how two reforms play out

Greater Victoria wanted list for the week of Dec. 10

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

POLL: Do you have a real or artificial Christmas tree?

The lights are up, holiday shoppers are bustling through the streets and… Continue reading

VIDEO: Octopus, bald eagle battle after bird ‘bites off more than it can chew’ in B.C. waters

B.C. crew films fight between the two feisty animals in Quatsino off north Vancouver Island

Couple who bought $120k banana duct-taped to wall say artwork will be ‘iconic’

Pair compared it to Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans,’ which was initially ‘met with mockery’

Race to replace Andrew Scheer could be a crowded one

Many familiar faces, such as Maxime Bernier, Jason Kenney, Doug Ford and Kevin O’Leary, have said no

Sooke’s École Poirier students win B.C. Hydro Power Smart contest

More than 100 schools compete in province-wide competition

Owner surrenders dogs chained up outside among scrap metal, garbage to BC SPCA

Shepherd-breed dogs were living in ‘deplorable conditions.’

Most Read