Granted, robins are Christmassy. English robins that is, with festive bright bobbing red-orange breasts, cheeky cheery cocked heads and a fearless approach to people (unlike their shy continental European counterparts), they are quite worthy of gracing many a Christmas card. But then, I think birds in general quite Christmassy, because I sometimes quite like Christmas, and I very much like birds. That’s a well-documented fact.
Here in America, though, I think they’ve outdone us. The Northern Cardinal is the North American Christmas bird, and it’s an absolute yuletide wonder – named for a Catholic cardinal’s robes but surely a brighter shade of beaming, beautiful celebratory red. A sizeable finch-like, seed-eating bird that’s surely been dipped in holly berry-dyed paint, whose appearance against a Christmas tree or snowy backdrop is unmatchable in its sheer ornamentality. Yes, here in these United States it’s the cardinal’s black bibbed, orange-billed face, dressed in his scarlet finery and capped with a jaunty crest of feathers that launched a thousand cards.
Even the females (sorry ladies) are quite attractive. Not blazing red like the males but a soft brownish green that is set off beautifully by deep red flight and tail feathers, and the hint of a red cap. Their duller colouring overall does at least help to illustrate what an extraordinary shade of day-glo orange a cardinal’s beak is.
Despite all this luminosity, they can be surprisingly hard to locate in amongst the dry leaves, scrub, and tangled bare branches of the American winter wood-scape. So I’m glad on this trip to have added Cardinal to my ornithological conjuring list: a bird I can identify by call (in this case, a squeaky kind of sharp ‘chip’ or perhaps ‘zipp’), and therefore anticipate from mere sound. It’s against a snowy white backdrop that this bird really would stand out (alas, a sight I have not seen this winter) and, I daresay, besides the obvious festive associations of scarlet red, the reason that it became the Christmas bird in the first place.
The only letdown in the Christmas bird stakes is in their song. Calling it a letdown is somewhat unfair, as it’s a clear, rich expressive whistle that is often startling when emerging unexpectedly from a winter thicket – at its best there’s a near nightingale-like quality and depth to the voice. Nonetheless it lacks the easygoing charm of the English robin, caroling gently into the frosty air of a country lane. And there you have the difference between many English and American birds laid out quite nicely: ours possess more subtle and refined charms; the American contenders are bold, in your face, exuberant and wild.
So depending on which side of the pond you reside, I wish you many a cardinal or robin in your garden this very merry Christmas, and an action-packed, bird-filled 2012.