birdnote q&a: christmas bird count (on holiday cards, and outdoors)

Northern Cardinal Joanne KamoIF LIKE ME you know a lot of “bird people,” perhaps you’ve noticed a trend in the holiday cards you receive. Perhaps you’ve noticed that the male Northern cardinal rules.

“The Northern cardinal–male version–is about as red as a bird comes, so no wonder that it turns up on Christmas cards,” says Ellen Blackstone, my friend at the public-radio show BirdNote, the repeat guest for our series of bird-themed Q&As.

In the story that follows, Ellen provided me with green links to audio files from BirdNote’s archive that you won’t want to miss; click them. Information on how to hear BirdNote daily is at the bottom of the page–and if you want to give thanks to nonprofit BirdNote for all their wonderful avian “aha’s,” you can do so at this link.

Vintage Christmas postcardA little inside-birding humor: A friend of Ellen’s once did “a CCBC, a Christmas Card Bird Count” (playing with the name of the famous Christmas Bird Count; details at the bottom of the page) and came up with the cardinal at Number 1, black-capped chickadee at Number 2, and the European robin in third place.

If traditional Christmas colors are red and green, why no green birds on the cards? Well, how many green birds have you seen out your window?

Green Jay Tom Gray“The only green bird we see in the United States–and this only in far-south Texas, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley–is the green jay,” says Ellen (photo above). “And that’s really more chartreuse, with a bold blue head, so it doesn’t classify as ‘holiday colors.’”

House Finch male Tom GreyAny more red birds to be seen? The house finch is common from coast to coast, border to border, except for the Plains states, and the male (above)–depending on what he eats–can be very close to red.

Red-Crossbill-male-Gregg-Thompson-640If there is a pair of birds that epitomizes the holiday season, it would probably be the male and female red crossbill, Ellen says (photos above and below, respectively). “Use your imagination, and you can say that they’re actually ‘red’ and ‘green.’ And…their main food is conifer seeds.” How festive (and what perfectly adapted bills they have for the task).

Red-Crossbill-female-Gregg-Thompson-640Which of these birds might turn up near you? Join a Christmas Bird Count, and see what you can see. Prior birding expertise is not required; all extra pairs of eyes focused on this citizen-science effort can help.

In my garden, apparently we’re having a blue Christmas–as in blue jays. A flock is screaming right now, even as I type. Typically I see two or three at a time, but this winter so far: nine or 10 loudmouths at a time, each with something that doesn’t sound much like “Merry Christmas” to say.

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FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog. All of my past interviews with BirdNote can be found at this link.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast on the player below, or by visiting their website, where you can subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

Photos used by permission with thanks to Gregg Thompson (crossbills, male and female); Joanne Kamo (cardinal); and Tom Gray (green jay and house finch male).

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Cara says:

    At my house outside Burlington, VT we’ve also been seeing a lot more bluejays than last year. They must have had a great year.

  2. Ann says:

    Lovely post. I do miss seeing lots of English robins on cards. There don’t seem to be as many and I noted they were No. 3.
    Have a wonderful Christmas.

  3. Mary Farrand says:

    Happy New Year Margaret! Another great way to overcome the winter doldrums is hearing your plans for spring time lectures or tours! Hint, hint!

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