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Christmas tree plantations provide habitat for birds

To me, the central feature of the holidays is the Christmas tree. Never mind the presents that were so important when I was a child. Or the snow that we may not even have this year. Or even the indoor and outdoor lights that so brighten our neighborhoods each evening.

I don't see the Christmas tree, despite its name, as a religious symbol. Its use at religious festivals seems to have derived from earlier pagan rites. And even when it was first associated with religion, it was with Adam and Eve rather than Christ. The spherical ornaments that now festoon decorated trees replace the earlier apples representing those of the Garden of Eden.

Why, then, is the Christmas tree so important to me? It reminds me of more temperate days. Wind the calendar back to June. Chris Hollister, Scott Meier and I are driving a back road near Springville through acres of spruces and pines destined in another season for holiday sales lots and finally homes in more urban areas all across America. This is one of our region's extensive Christmas tree plantations. We're here because these plantations are the home of a number of bird species. Some we rarely see elsewhere.

Scott pulls to the roadside and we pile out to scan the 5- to 10-foot evergreen treetops and to listen for bird song. We're immediately rewarded by both sight and sound. We focus our binoculars on a singing vesper sparrow. Chris briefly plays a tape and the bird flies close to serenade us and provide perfect views. It looks much like our more common song sparrow, but is distinguished from that species by two features: chestnut shoulders and the white outer tail feathers that are evident when it flies. It shares this latter feature with the junco.

Its song is also like that of the song sparrow, but it begins with two low and then two high notes. This bird's name derives from the evening prayer service called vespers, because it sings until the last vestiges of twilight are lost.

Now my friends hear a prairie warbler's high-pitched notes that are well beyond my limit, even assisted by hearing aids. I know the song from past experience: a series of thin zees rising in pitch. This handsome bird also offers us close-up views, its bright yellow breast marked with black streaks along its sides.

Those are two of our three target species for today. We miss the third, the clay-colored sparrow, but Chris will find it on a later trip to this same area.

Finally, I am able to make a contribution. I hear a loud chink and ask Chris to play the song of a towhee. He does, and up to another nearby treetop hops a handsome male. It is black-hooded with black extending down its back and tail. Its white belly is set off by a splash of chestnut along its sides. From its perch it commands us by its distinctive song to "drink your tea."

Exhilarated by finding these birds, we are ready to move on, but two more species appear. The first is an indigo bunting, an all blue bird. In poor light that blue appears more gray, but this morning in bright sun it is spectacular. The second is a brown thrasher. Heard first at some distance, its pairs of phrases are distinctive. When we are driving to our next stop, we see one at the roadside. To me thrashers look like size-doubled, bill-stretched and brighter-colored song sparrows.

Whenever I see a Christmas tree, I think of those plantations where rare species threatened by habitat loss are so often found. In all my years of birding, only once have I ever seen any of those first three species outside pine plantations during breeding seasons.

I thank those who have bought a real tree this year, and I urge everyone who can to do so. You will support farmers, wildlife and, yes, birders as well.

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