Ornithologists among you will have correctly identified the bird on our newest pattern as the Cardinal. Striking crimson in colour, with a contrasting rich black full goatee around its beak, it cuts a dash during the winter months when the predominant tones around are the brown and dark green tones of bark and bare earth. This bird is also nod to my homeland, where these natty-looking creatures reside aplenty.
Coincidentally, I recently watched the film The Two Popes and this filmic insight made it very clear where the cardinal bird gets its name from. Aside from brilliant performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, we see them both bedraped in the scarlet costumery of cardinal bishops and particular attention is paid to the matching and very fine scarlet Papal slippers that complete the ensemble. The red of these garments is a symbolic reference to the blood of Christ and of sacrifice – a reflection also found in folklore tales that make the same connection with the European Robin and its red breast.
Cardinals are granivores, with seeds making up the best part of their intake, alongside grains and fruit. This sounds like the kind of healthy diet we should perhaps all be following. While you may feel that wild animals are best left to find their own food, feeding birds is known to not only improve their chances of surviving the winter and therefore boost numbers, but you may also see an increase in the diversity of birds that visit your hanging feeders or tables. And of course, nowadays, a restaurant-like menu of bird food options is available, in restaurant-quality formats. It seems birdy catering has been upgraded from plain peanuts (not suitable for human consumption) to (gourmet) fat balls and (Michelin Starred) seed cakes! Word gets around amongst the twitterati about the best feeding spots. There are many recipes online for homemade bird treats, and if you’re a keen maker of flapjacks you’ll be a dab hand at making your own fatty mixes for your avian friends.
Christmas visit to my brothers bird table.
Further thinking about berries, and making a trans-Atlantic hop back to Europe, now is the time for foraging for sloes. Traditionally picked for making aromatic sloe-flavoured gin, jelly and jam can also be made from the berries if you prefer something non-alcoholic. You can find them in many locations and don’t have to be in the countryside, as there are blackthorn bushes growing in many parks and larger urban commons and heathlands. Common advice it to pick them after the first frost, as the process of freezing and thawing helps the sloes to release maximum flavour. However, you can cheat at this point and just put them in the freezer before use. I actually do this with many berries, including raspberries and blueberries, and freeze them first.
To listen to the song of the Cardinal there are a few examples here.
If you would like to find out more about the birds in your garden and how to support them these sites have lots of information:
www.rspb.org.uk - also includes a recipe for making your own fat and seed cakes