Reindeer and their mammal ilk don’t have a lock on Christmas.  

Though Rudolph, Dasher, Dancer and the others are perhaps the first animals that comes to mind during this holiday season, there is another cadre of creatures that have a place in the Christmas story.  

Cue the birds. They have multiple roles this Christmas that can be broken down into categories. There are the ones we eat, others we sing about, and another that serves symbolically as a reminder of the Nativity story.

Birds have a prominent place in many households’ holiday meal. Domestic chickens and turkey are common avian main dishes. Hunters have also taken advantage of many types of wild fowl, including duck, geese, pheasant and quail. In days past, before laws protected wild birds, other species might have been on the menu.  

If you aren’t keen on eating birds, you can sing about them. The famous Christmas carol The Twelve Days of Christmas includes mentions of a variety and number of birds and their activities: two turtle doves, three French hens, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying and a single partridge (you know where).  

It has been asserted that even the non-bird verses of the song might really be about birds. Consider the drummers drumming as woodpeckers pecking; the calling birds (from colly, or coaly) as blackbirds; the pipers piping representing shorebirds that tweet on the beach; and milking maids symbolizing nightjar species, which are also called goat suckers because of the myth of them suckling from farm animals. Ladies and lords dancing instead might indicate the mating dances of cranes, and so on.  

Though you won’t be singing about or eating this last bird, it has its own Yuletide symbolism and history. The common and innocuous robin has a supporting role in the story of Christ’s birth and death.  

In the baby’s early days in Bethlehem, a fire burned in the manger. As the fire grew bigger and the flames got closer to Jesus’s crèche, a robin flew in to protect the baby from the flames and scalded its breast, resulting in the bird’s red frontage. Another version says the robin fanned the flames close to keep the baby warm, though the results on its coloring was the same. At the end of Christ’s life, the robin appears again. This time it pulls a thorn from his crown and the blood from the wound colored the robin’s chest.    

A darker story of the robin’s hues explains that this bird gathered water for souls in purgatory and its flying among the flames of hell lead to its ruddy torso.  

More modern holiday symbolism for the robin is as a deliverer of holiday cards. In 1840s Britain, the London Penny Post encouraged folks to send inexpensive messages to loved ones. A robin with a letter in its beak became its icon because the postal deliverers wore red uniforms reminiscent of this beloved bird. The postal workers were called robins.  

While the robins of Britain are a different species than our local American robins, it is not unexpected to see our local bird at this time of year, either overwintering or migrating from more northern areas.   

There is at least one other reason to be thinking of birds this season: the annual Christmas Bird Count is coming soon (details in the Bird News column). We hope to see robins during that annual event. But no matter: even if we don’t, we can still say that its pedigree in lore and legend makes this Christmas bird always count. 

Suzan Bellincampi is islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.