Lately, I’ve been pondering what bird would be the best symbol of Christmas. It’s not a critical question, that’s true enough, but it has engaged carolers, cooks and greeting card companies. For cooks, it’s the goose, although Americans prefer turkey; for carolers, it’s the partridge. For greeting card companies, the choice is not settled. Cardinals, chickadees and snowy owls all are in the running.
These are worthy candidates; delicious in the case of the goose or turkey, traditional in the case of the partridge, colorful in the case of the cardinal, common in the case of the chickadee and polar in the case of the snowy owl.
The partridge has been the usual choice for bird of the week closest to Christmas. Last week’s column discussed which partridge is the real Christmas symbol. It’s not the one many Americans call partridge. That’s the ruffed grouse. That couldn’t be the Christmas partridge because it is exclusively a North American bird, and the carol predates the European occupation of this continent. Instead, like Christmas itself, the partridge is a European immigrant, introduced here as another quarry for hunters.
Nevertheless, I have stuck with the gray partridge as an appropriate avian emblem for Christmas, probably because my father made a point of feeding the partridges on Christmas morning. This involved walking to the granary, scooping up a bucketful of oats and tossing it on the driveway that led to our farmstead.
I don’t recall that the partridges ever failed to show up, but my memory may be clouded by nostalgia, like so much else associated with Christmas.
This realization made my quest for an appropriate symbol more urgent. This would be my own choice, shaped by my own experience and meaningful to me, if not to any other person.
The winner is the common redpoll, which therefore makes its second appearance as bird of the week this year.
The choice was made Wednesday, on the Christmas Bird Count at Icelandic State Park near Cavalier, N.D. A group of 75 redpolls were feeding along N.D. Highway 5 about a mile west of the park entrance. They were the first species of the day for me.
Perfect as a Christmas symbol, I instantly realized. The redpoll is colorful in a way appropriate for Christmas. It displays a red cap and a reddish blush on its breast. It is a winter bird here. Its nesting range is in the far North, not so far from Santa’s Workshop.
Redpolls are winter birds here, though not completely dependable. It’s one of the “irruptive” winter finches that shows up in large numbers some years and is relatively rare in others. My experience, though, is that every winter has at least a few redpolls.
This has been a good winter for redpolls. Most mornings, there are a couple of dozen at my feeder array, a sharp decrease from earlier in the season, when I sometimes had 100 or more. This is typical of the species. Redpolls move around, stimulated by food supply and perhaps, I think, by weather conditions as well as by wanderlust.
In North America, redpolls nest as far south as the Hudson Bay lowlands in northeastern Manitoba. They also occur in Greenland, Iceland, Europe and Asia, and they’ve been introduced in New Zealand.
Redpolls are small birds, smaller than house sparrows or dark-eyed juncos. There are two species, common and hoary. The latter is lighter in color, appearing to be frosted, hence its common name, though this is used only in North America. Some experts accept other species; others argue that these are geographic races or subspecies.
Redpolls frequently show up at feeders, and they are always welcome at mine. Even more welcome, though, is the sudden appearance of redpolls in the winter, as happened Wednesday. The birds sprang up from the roadside, in an instant bringing life to what had seemed to be an empty landscape.
They therefore are a symbol of hope. What the Christmas story accomplishes theologically, the redpoll accomplishes in the natural world.
Follow-up: I didn’t find a ruffed grouse on the Icelandic State Park bird count, so that ambition went unrealized. The bird was seen by other observers, though, so it will appear on the count tally.