By Bryan Stevens
Although many articles have been penned about the demise of the Christmas card, I still receive plenty of these paper greetings each holiday season. My friends and acquaintances, knowing me well, I suppose, often select cards featuring a variety of birds. Regardless of rising postal costs and hectic schedules during a busy season, the Christmas card appears to be an enduring tradition.
Many of the cards I have received this year and in past holiday seasons have featured the Northern cardinal, which has long been one of my favorite birds. During the winter months, particularly during the holiday season, the Northern cardinal seems to take on even more significance. Anyone who received many Christmas cards this year will probably confirm that the cardinal often appears on them. The origins of the cardinal’s affiliation with the holiday of Christmas are a bit murky. After all, the Northern cardinal is a North American bird that would have been unknown in Europe until the 1600s, when the first explorers and settlers arrived from Europe.
The cardinal is hardly the only species of wildlife, let alone bird, that has become closely associated with the holiday. Everything from polar bears and seals to doves and penguins are also popular motifs for designers who craft Christmas cards. In recent years, I’ve even seen other birds — owls, chickadees, and even sandpipers — begin to decorate cards.
Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees and the drab American goldfinches that are such a contrast in winter to their vibrant summer appearance. The Northern Cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray. Could there be a better bird to brighten a Christmas card?
Well, as it turns out, there are other birds beyond the picture-perfect Northern cardinal that are worthy of gracing the front of Christmas cards. As previously mentioned, penguins are popular featured birds on many a Christmas card. Thanks to major motion pictures like Happy Feet (2006) and Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011), as well as documentaries like 2005’s March of the Penguins, these dapper birds have enjoyed an enhanced profile in recent years and earned a place on our Christmas cards.
Of course, there’s not one single “penguin” species. There are about 20 different penguin species, ranging in size from the emperor penguin, which weighs 75 pounds and stands three feet seven inches tall, to the little blue penguin, also whimsically known as the fairy penguin, which weighs 2.2 pounds and stands about 16 inches tall. Other species include the king penguin, yellow-eyed penguin and macaroni penguin.
While at first glance owls are an unlikely species for depiction on a Christmas card, I can understand why people have embraced these nocturnal birds. With their big eyes and a reputation that has improved as we are less likely to embrace superstitious myths, owls are a good choice for gracing the cover of a card. One species — the snowy owl — is a perfect bird to depict the wintry season. With its white plumage, contrasted with varying amounts of black or brown markings on the body and wings, this owl of the Far North is a good symbol for the Christmas season. It’s no surprise at all to find an image of a snowy owl staring with piercing yellow eyes from the front of a Christmas card. Other species of owls that I’ve seen featured on cards include barn owl, great horned owl, Northern saw-whet owl, and burrowing owl.
In real life, the snowy owl is a denizen of the treeless tundra regions of the Arctic. Some winters see these owls staging massive migrations that bring them south of the Canadian border. While they are more likely to spend the winter months in such Canada-bordering states as Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, snowy owls have surprised and delighted birders by winging their way as far south as Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina during some winters.
While owls and penguins are definite contenders, I’d wager that the Northern cardinal is the bird most often depicted on Christmas and other greeting cards. As further evidence to explain the popularity of the Northern cardinal, consider that it’s the official state bird of seven states — Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern Cardinal in this respect. Being designated an official state bird is also an honor that’s eluded any species of owl, let alone any of the world’s various penguins.
Finally, one last thing works in favor of the Northern cardinal. Once the holidays are past, and the Christmas cards are packed away, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern Cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day.
Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email [email protected]