“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.”
And two turtledoves, three French hens, four calling birds … .’ Tis the season of gifting.
While wandering through one of our local holiday bazaars, I was amazed to see the large number of gifts picturing birds. Birds on plates, birds on ornaments, birds on boxes of stationery, bird Christmas cards. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, given the pounding into our brains of that original 12-gift Christmas song.
That partridge in the song actually would be a rather inappropriate gift for a true love, since the partridge exemplifies abandonment of faith. The partridge is known to desert its young, leaving them to fend for themselves. Far better to stick with the two turtledoves, which symbolize conjugal fidelity.
A recent conversation with Margaret, who works in the Star Store’s women’s clothing section, reminded me that we’d do well to pay attention to the kinds of birds depicted on our gifts.
In bird symbolism, swallows represent safe return — very appropriate for a son or daughter going off to college or someone in the military. As well as the image of a falcon, which signifies successful undertaking. You certainly wouldn’t want to give them anything picturing an owl, which represents death.
Margaret reminded me it would be best not to give a crow, or owl, to my 95-year-old mother-in-law. The term “old crow” tells it all, as does this old British saying: “A crow on the thatch, soon death lifts the latch.”
Colorful yellow and black goldfinches are often the subjects of bird motifs. But remember that their Latin name Carduelis tristis denotes sadness. It would be much better to give a depiction of a purple finch or house finch.
For the traveler on your shopping list, look for a red crossbill. This is a nomadic species moving from area to area looking for food and nesting locations, and regularly returning home.
If you have clergy to buy for, remember that bad priests become ravens and bad nuns become crows, at least according to French folklore.
Although the golden eagle symbolizes bravery, I would never give my older brother anything with even the hint of that bird. The female golden eagle typically lays two eggs, the second egg a couple of days after the first, allowing the older eaglet to grow faster. If food supplies are low, the older sibling may kill and eat the younger one.
Images of hummingbirds are very popular, but you might want to hold back, at least for a holiday gift. These birds are harbingers of rain in native Mexican custom.
Coots were once considered birds of beauty and intelligence and they are often included in royal coats of arms. It was deemed the most prudent of all birds, staying in one place rather than gadding about. However, unless your beloved spouse is versed in this tradition, I’d steer clear-given the more modern opinions, such as “crazy as a coot.”
So what to give your spouse? You could search for the depiction of a blackbird on a pillow. German legend suggests that placing the heart of a blackbird under the head of a sleeping man would cause him to tell his innermost secrets.
If someone you love has rheumatism you could try the feathers of a turkey vulture, which are supposed to be an effective cure. For this to work be sure to mention in the card that the feathers must be worn in one’s hair. To encourage this somewhat odd behavior, just remind them that the feathers will also provide protection against a scorpion’s bite.
Probably the most commonly depicted bird of all is the chickadee. You’re safe with this one, believed to be a sign of spring and also it will call to warn of impeding danger. The noted naturalist John Burrows wrote, “the chickadee has a voice of unspeakable tenderness and fidelity.” The perfect holiday wish for anyone on your holiday shopping list.
I expect there will be an abundance of chickadees showing up on the tallies for this year’s Christmas Bird Counts. The north end count based around Oak Harbor will be held on Saturday, Dec. 21. The South End count, located from Greenbank south to Clinton, is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 27.
If you’d like to participate, check the Whidbey Audubon website or Facebook page for more information. I’ll be participating in both. Hope to see you there.
Frances Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ; Craig Johnson is at Craigjohnson@whidbey.com