By its plumage, each wild bird is named.
By its frosted topping, each cookie is tamed.
At the Betchkal household in Eau Claire, the birding never stops. Even indoors. And not even for the holidays.
“My mom makes a ton of Christmas cookies every year, and so we all have to pitch in and help frost them,” said Davyd Betchkal, who, with his partner Kim Arthur, travels all the way from Denali National Park in Alaska to spend time in Wisconsin each mid-winter.
“A couple of years ago my brother, Emerson was helping us frost cookies at the dining room table and each of his cookies was painstakingly ornate,” Davyd said. “So the rest of us started to get into it too. We said, ‘Oh! We could do birds! That would be fun! We could do these accurate depictions of different birds.’ “
Well, at least as accurate as gloms of homemade buttercream frosting allow.
Birders use physical characteristics to help them spot bird species in the field, and we’re not just talking about color. Traits such as body shape, tail length, wing bars, eye rings and spotting or streaking are all useful clues in separating one avian representative from another.
What started out as a joke designed to ease the tedious task of frosting dozens of cookies soon became a study in dessert detailing. Out came the bird guides and phone apps.
Family members began to seek out favorite or regionally appropriate birds. The only limiter to design were the shade of frosting — and how much work one cared to sink into a single, soon-to-be-ingested sugar cookie.
Black proved to be the toughest color to duplicate in the kitchen wilds. At first we employed a muddy brown, or perhaps purple. But Julie, my wife, who whips up the bowls of frosting, finally concocted a truer black.
After that, the trick was finding bird “eyes.” For a while we used raisins, but they were lumpy and not convincing. That problem was resolved when Julie found black candy beads at a kitchen store.
Ultimately, our goal is to enjoy a plentiful population of yummy cookies, and to one day compile a family “Field Guide to Holiday Bird Cookies.”
Each holiday season we move a few compositions closer to matching all of North America’s 800 or so different bird species. For those who care little for the science of edible ornithology, the edible remains top priority.
“I’ve been making cookies for Christmas since I was a young married woman and bringing them along when we return home to where my family is from, in Two Rivers. And my Uncle Barney — my Irish Uncle Barney — loves them,” Julie said. “So we began a tradition where he gets his own container of Christmas cookies. And every year, when we show up for the holidays, he greets me with a hug and a kiss and he says ‘Where are my cookies?’ “
And every year, despite kind reminders to pace himself, Julie’s cookie-snarfing uncle polishes off the entire batch in a matter of days, offering up a working model for bird cookie conservation.
Wild birds, of course, face innumerable stressors during their short, delicious lives. For them, there are no guarantees of longevity.
So it is at tabletop.
The process of frosting cookies can make a person hungry, so if a cookie happens to break while being frosted, it is in serious jeopardy of being eaten. Sometimes that happens even when they don’t break.
But those that survive the butter knife will court the eye and the taste buds, and wing their way to Uncle Barney’s.
“My Uncle Barney is not a birdwatcher,” Julie said. “He just likes bird cookies.”
Betchkal is a bird expert, videographer and writer who lives in Eau Claire.