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Christmas birds and berries: Enjoying nature’s seasonal changes



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Winter is upon us, and another uncertain Christmas beckons, but I take encouragement from the seasonal changes in nature.

Birds get a big mention at Christmas and appear on many cards. In The Twelve Days of Christmas carol, birds feature in six of the 12 verses, starting with a partridge in a pear tree, as depicted so beautifully in this special Christmas card created by local artist Annabel Lee (see http://www.annabellee.space/).

A Christmas card from Annabel Lee (53628341)
A Christmas card from Annabel Lee (53628341)

Annabel’s partridge is the red-legged or French partridge (Alectoris rufa) which was introduced from France around 1770 and is now commoner than our native grey partridge (Perdix perdix), the latter having declined seriously to the point at which it is now threatened. A good choice for the card perhaps, as red-legged partridges are (slightly) more likely to perch on trees than are grey partridges.

Grey partridge. Picture: Jonathan Heath (53628246)
Grey partridge. Picture: Jonathan Heath (53628246)

There is an interesting historical and linguistic twist here. This carol, first published in England in 1780, about 10 years after the bird arrived, is also thought to be French in origin. The French for partridge is ‘perdrix’, which sounds a lot like ‘pear tree’! What is more, ‘alectoris’ is the Ancient Greek for hen. Three French hens anyone? A French version of the carol simply refers to ‘Un’ perdrix sole’, with no mention of a tree.

A red-legged partridge. Pictiure: Jonathan Heath (53628260)
A red-legged partridge. Pictiure: Jonathan Heath (53628260)

This month, after many trees have lost their leaves, the berries stand out ripe and bright in hedges and gardens, providing cheer as well as welcome nourishment for the birds.

Whenever I see mistletoe, and there is a lot in the trees around Cambridge, I always look out for mistle thrushes. Wilder in behaviour than song thrushes or blackbirds, they like to feed on the white glutinous berries and they even guard clumps of this strange parasitic plant from other birds. Jon Heath’s photograph shows clearly the large dark blotches across the whole underside and the grey tint on the wings of this large thrush, captured here perched amongst the dangling cones of an alder tree.

A mistle thrush. Picture: Jonathan Heath (53628254)
A mistle thrush. Picture: Jonathan Heath (53628254)

A favourite plant of mine is guelder rose (Viburnum opulus). A native of hedges and damp woods, it can be an indicator of ancient woodland. It produces drooping clusters of red berries in the autumn, lasting into winter, and these are a food source for many birds, including bullfinches and mistle thrushes. The name ‘guelder’ relates to the Dutch province Gelderland where a popular cultivar originated.

Guelder rose. Picture: Martin Walters (53628248)
Guelder rose. Picture: Martin Walters (53628248)

The genus Cotoneaster contains many species of attractive shrubs, many of which are popular in gardens. Cotoneaster horizontalis is a lovely, low-growing shrub that thrives even in shallow soil. Just now its small, red berries are tightly clustered together along the branching stems, brightening many a garden border. It is native to the mountains of Nepal and China.

Contoneaster horizontalis. Picture: Martin Walters (53628244)
Contoneaster horizontalis. Picture: Martin Walters (53628244)

Holly (Ilex aquifolium), associated as it is with Christ’s blood and the crown of thorns, has long been a traditional festive favourite, and sprigs with leaves and berries adorn shops and houses. The wood of holly is heavy and very pale and is often used to make carvings.

The natural habitat of holly is the understorey of woodland, especially beneath beech trees where it provides evergreen shelter for many mammals and birds.

Holly. Picture: Martin Walters (53628250)
Holly. Picture: Martin Walters (53628250)

The bright red berries on the female trees potentially remain on the twigs throughout the winter, but in really cold weather they are eaten by birds, especially members of the thrush family, including winter visitors such as redwings and fieldfares. It now has a personal connection in our family too as our newest granddaughter Holly is soon to experience her first Christmas.

Visit Martin Walters’ author page for more articles like these

Impressive display of waders at WWT Wildfowl and Wetland Centre at Welney

Hear starlings performing an extraordinary imitation



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