Contemplating the Festively Feathered

Contemplating the Festively Feathered

Jorm Sangsorn/Getty

This holiday season is for the birds.

This holiday season is for the birds. I mean that in a reverent way—not in the that’s for the birds way that shrugs off something as meaningless. No, friends, I really mean it. From Halloween right through New Year’s Eve, birds surround us.

Yet, they are often relegated to supporting roles—perched atop prize-winning pumpkins or nestled in the heavy, snow-filled branches of evergreen trees. Creche sets abound with ox and ass, sheep and camels, leaving no room for the festively feathered. And reindeer boldly overtake the skies. So, this holy-day season, let’s give the feathered the limelight.


Historically, humans typecast crows as villains and opportunists intent on harming their crops and livestock. But, for those who observe Samhain, crows are sacred. During this annual harvest festival, the shiny black beings open a connection to the dead and signal the arrival of the darker season of the year.

During the festivities, you might find a Wiccan or neo-pagan who will advise you of the hidden prophecy behind the counting of crows: One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a funeral, four for birth. Notably, in some versions of this old English counting rhyme, three crows suggests a marriage rather than a funeral. So, it can be hard to pin down what the crows you’ve counted actually suggest.

Not so in the ninth century Tibetan treatise referred to as Kakajariti (“On the Sounds of the Crow”). This text offers a surprisingly formalized system based on bird vocalizations. For example, one verse advises: When in the first watch in the east a crow sounds its notes, the wishes of men will be fulfilled. When in the south-east it sounds its notes, an enemy will approach.

Similarly, Romans practiced augury and Greeks ornithomancy. Hmmm … should we modern humans be counting birds, too? While I can’t attest to the accuracy of predictions about marriage, death, or enemies, I have observed that tuning into the feathered ones in my habitat reminds me that the world was not created for me alone.

Reflection: Would I like to learn more about the crow, finch, downy woodpecker, or snowy owl living near me? What gifts might I receive from tuning into their movements and sounds more mindfully?


As Thanksgiving appears, it’s hard not to avoid its feathered festivity. Yet, this holiday offers a disturbing paradox for bird lovers: smiling turkey on the decorations, not-so-smiling turkey on the platter.

Over the past few decades, scholars and social activists have deconstructed Thanksgiving layer by layer. As a result, we’ve thrown out sentimental and biased images of “Pilgrims and Indians,” critically addressed the doctrine of discovery, and begun to pursue decolonization. Yet, these necessary steps leave out other-than-humans.

What does it mean to choose a specific species to represent a human celebrated holiday? Especially one that not all people can eat. Doesn’t this nullify the concept of inclusivity that early stories of Thanksgiving—however flawed and untrue they were—tried to uphold?

Many Jewish people do not eat turkey because of their religious convictions. Neither do Jains or Sikhs. A lot of Buddhists and followers of the philosophy of yoga are out, too, based on the practice of ahimsa. Likewise, many Rastafarians and Seventh-day Adventists don’t eat animals. Ethical vegans and vegetarians don’t either. Furthermore, sneaky additives in commercially raised turkeys can create allergic reactions for people sensitive to dairy, soy, wheat, and corn.

Reflection: Is it time to deconstruct our holiday dinner plates to promote inclusivity and gratitude in the broadest sense? Would I be willing to adopt universal meals guidelines so that the largest number of people can share the same meal? (Check out for details.)


Whether you identify as Christian or not, you’ll likely hear “The Twelve Days of Christmas” soon. Decoding the species present in this seasonal carol is a highly contested and curious endeavor.

So is determining the official lyrics, which vary widely but always contain an animal or two, seemingly based on the writer’s geographical location: hares, badgers, lambs, bulls, bears, and even hounds make an appearance. But overall, upon a close inspection of the over two dozen popular versions, one thing is for sure. The most common gifts are decidedly feather-forward: partridge, turtle-dove, French hen, colly bird, goose, and swan. Yet, most of us would balk—or bawk?—at accepting these birds as a gift. Where would we put them?

Who has room for six geese and seven swans, let alone that partridge and her tree? Sure, I love birds, but they belong outside, thank you very much, we might berate the gift-giver. Yet, there is a profound idea on the flip side of this snarky diatribe—if we consider what we might gift to birds.

Reflection: How can I help the feathered near me? Am I willing to research the best feeders and food for their health? Could I purchase a roost box to help them stay warm? Get a heated bird bath so that they have access to clean water?


For some birds, the dark side of New Year’s Eve surpasses mere human hangovers and credit card regret.Sadly, each year as celebratory fireworks emblazon night skies around the world, birds suffer. Our feathered friends can have severe responses to extreme noises, colliding dangerously into buildings, aircraft, or each other, leading to injury and death. And then there’s the problem of plumy formal wear … well, enough said there.

Reflection: As I compose my New Year’s resolutions, can I include actions that reduce suffering for the winged ones?


Reconciliation of needs and wants in a multispecies world is endlessly complex. Yet, in every language, we find a word for a shared vision: peace, םולש, paz, ཞི་བད, minaggen. Perhaps if we listen closely enough, we may hear the same universal aspiration in a chirp, cluck, gobble, or peep.

Feathered friends

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