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Jean Powley

The most popular bird on Christmas cards

Photo by Jean Powley

Festive Birds

As the month of December progresses, Christmas cards will be dropping through our letter boxes. Since the practice of sending seasonal greetings began in the mid-nineteenth century, animal and bird designs have always been popular and nowadays you may purchase cards depicting virtually any creature of your choice. Even Meercats are getting in on the act, presumably the influence of a certain TV advertisement. Penguins too are pretty cool at the moment (forgive the pun).

I think you would agree that the most common bird depicted on Christmas cards is without doubt, the Robin, our national bird.  Since Victorian times the Robin has reigned supreme. In Victorian Britain, red-jacketed postmen were originally called ‘Robin Redbreasts’ and some cards were posted which actually showed a friendly little Robin delivering the post.

In the last few years other birds have crept in on the scene. The Blue Tit and Great Tit may be seen in some cards together with woodland birds such as the Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker. Owls also are featured on Christmas cards. The Barn Owl in particular is a favourite. The colour of the Barn Owl seems to blend in so well in a frosty or snowy landscape and this seems to convey the ghostly flight of this bird as it glides low over pastures. Tawny Owls feature too and this is particularly timely as tawnies are at their most vocal at this time of year.

Wildfowl on cards are represented by swans and geese perhaps because many different species migrate to us during the winter months. The goose of course was once the customary meat to consume on Christmas Day but today it is replaced by the turkey. Mute Swans were eaten only by the higher echelons of society and then only on special occasions. Now that these swans are owned by the Crown, only the Royal Family and Fellows of St. Johns College, Cambridge may partake of them. It is said that swan’s meat is supposedly dry and tough.

Game birds are sometimes depicted, usually showing the colourful cock Pheasant strutting through a field in the deep and even crisp snow. Another game bird which crops up on cards is the Partridge, for in that rousing carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,’ we sing about a Partridge in a pear tree. Other birds mentioned in the carol are two Turtle Doves, three French hens and four colly birds, (the latter are assumed to be Blackbirds as colly means as black as soot or coal). Once again, swans and geese get a look in on days six and seven.  

One bird which appears on cards and surely deserves a mention is the most symbolic bird of Christmas and this is the white dove. The white dove is not actually a specific breed but belongs to the same family as your average feral pigeon; it has just been specially bred to be white. Usually depicted as a pure white bird in flight carrying an olive leaf or small branch, the dove is by its very nature, a bird of serenity.

In Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the goddess of love is often depicted with a white dove. In Christian art, the white dove is commonly seen with Mary as a symbol of care, devotion, purity and peace. The concept of the dove as a bird of peace has remained with us since early Christian times and indeed is also now used in some political circles for pacifism and the promotion of peace. On that note, I therefore wish you all a very peaceful Christmas.

Jean Powley    

Jean is a voluntary Ambassador for the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) Garden BirdWatch scheme in Nottinghamshire. If you enjoy watching birds and other wildlife which visit your garden, Garden BirdWatch may be perfect for you. Currently it is free to join the scheme. If you are interested or require further information visit

Woodborough Institute Bingo

Monday 6th December 7.00pm prompt.

(from now onwards)

All proceeds to the Woodborough Institute.