Published December 20, 2009, 12:00 AM

ALWAYS IN SEASON: Some birds are associated with Christmas

Probably, the birds most associated with Christmas are the goose and the partridge. Both of these traditions come to us from England — and in fact are among the few authentically English Christmas traditions in the United States. Most American Christmas traditions come from the Netherlands and northern Germany — Santa Claus, for instance, who is an outgrowth of a Dutch tradition.

Probably, the birds most associated with Christmas are the goose and the partridge.

Both of these traditions come to us from England — and in fact are among the few authentically English Christmas traditions in the United States. Most American Christmas traditions come from the Netherlands and northern Germany — Santa Claus, for instance, who is an outgrowth of a Dutch tradition.

But some food traditions have English roots — the Christmas Goose, for instance.

There is no shortage of wild geese in England, especially in winter, when thousands of birds from northern Europe settle into English coastal wetlands.

But probably, the Christmas goose is a domestic bird. Geese have been farm-raised for centuries.

Even if it were a wild bird, it would be a different species than the geese we find in North America. Neither Canada geese nor snow geese occur regularly in England, although both have been recorded there.

In any case, the season for geese is past in our part of the world. The tremendous flocks of migrating geese are a memory for this year, though of course, we all look forward to their return in the spring.

Not so for the partridge.

Partridges are resident birds in the Red River Valley. Populations fluctuate, probably because of pressure from predators and losses to weather.

That the partridge has survived here seems remarkable because it is not a native bird. Instead, it was introduced in the 1920s and 1930s as a game bird.

This is how the partridge got to England, too.

It is native to the steppe lands of southeastern Europe. Your ancestors from Hungary, Romania and Ukraine would have known the partridge.

In fact, a common name for the bird is Hungarian partridge, and for my entire life, I’ve called them Huns, or sometimes “hunnies” because that is what my father called them.

A better, more descriptive name is “gray partridge,” and that is the name the bird books use.

Precisely how the partridge became associated with Christmas is a mystery. It appears in the famous carol as the gift of the first day of Christmas. In the Christian religious calendar, of course, that would be Christmas Day itself, so there is some thought that the partridge is a stand-in for the baby Jesus.

In any case, the partridge was a welcome Christmas guest at the farm. My father always spread grain for the “hunnies” after chores on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas morning, these beautiful little birds would appear for their Christmas feast.

The term “partridge” is sometimes applied to ruffed grouse, but these would have been unfamiliar to the medieval English. Ruffed grouse are birds of North American forests. They’re in the same family — the Galliniformes or chickenlike birds — but partridges are more closely related to American quail than to grouse.

Another bird that’s becoming increasing associated with Christmas is the northern cardinal, which is depicted on countless Christmas greeting cards, probably more than any other bird.

Christmas cards are an American custom, and the cardinal is an American bird, so cardinals and Christmas cards make an authentic American tradition. The association between Christmas and cardinals may have something to do with the color combination, red for the cardinal and white for snow.

Or, it may arise because cardinals are stationary birds, seldom migrating far, and so they’re likely to be seen in mid-winter.

Cardinals are expanding their range north and westward, but they remain uncommon in the northern Red River Valley.

Birder Dave Lambeth told me last week that he expects cardinals on the Grand Forks Christmas bird count — another American Christmas tradition. He’s had as many as three at his bird feeders this month.

So, perhaps the cardinal will become a fixture of Christmases around here, too.

Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald.

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