“On the Fourth Day of Christmas my true love gave to me four colly birds…”
Yes, folks…it is actually colly birds, not calling birds. Somehow the word got messed up over the years, and now people tend to sing the song saying “calling birds” rather than the original colly birds.
So just what is a colly bird? It’s a blackbird. In England a coal mine is known as a colliery, and colly is a derivation of this – basically meaning “black as coal.”
In days of old, blackbirds were considered a game bird and actually hunted for food. It was common then for many game birds to be cooked in a pie – in fact, savory pies were a convenient way to serve and eat a meal…since forks had yet to be invented. It was actually in the British colonies of America that pies evolved from being a main course to becoming dessert.
Of course, this brings to mind the old nursery rhyme that many of us learned as children:
Sing a song of sixpence
A pocket full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing
Wasn’t that a dainty dish
To set before the king?
No matter how dainty a dish it might have been, I doubt one can find blackbird pie these days.
What one can find is those little black ceramic birds that one can use when baking pies. Basically they are pie funnels, used to prevent the pie from boiling over in the oven. By allowing the steam created when the pie filling is cooking to escape, it keeps your oven clean and makes for a more attractive, well baked pie. To use a pie bird, one lines the pie dish with pastry, places the bird in the center and pours the filling in around it, then places the upper crust on top, allowing the pie bird to stick out of a hole in the pastry . The bird will release steam through his mouth “vent” during baking and help to prevent juices from boiling over in the oven.
Pie birds can pretty much be used with any type of pie that has an upper crust, whether it be a sweet apple pie or a savory chicken pot pie.
I’ve always been a pie person – given a choice I would prefer pie over cake. As a child my family didn’t eat a lot of desserts and my mother wasn’t much of a baker (although she did make great biscuits for Sunday breakfasts.) When Mom did bake desserts, they were almost always pies. There was of course the traditional pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, but that didn’t get an upper crust. For a two-crust pie, I would say the most common that came out of the family kitchen was apple, since that was my father’s favorite. I do remember that our neighbor, a sweet gray-haired old lady, had a rhubarb patch and would sometimes bring over a rhubarb pie, which we also enjoyed.
However, I cannot say that I ever saw these pie birds being used. Nobody in my family ever used them, and I can’t recall that anyone I knew did either. But being a lover of pies, I’m kind of curious to give them a try. I just might order myself a bird or two from one of the cooking websites and see how well they work.
If I do, I might make a nice chicken pot pie for my meal…as I’ve always enjoyed those. We ate them quite a bit when I was a kid, although interestingly my mother never made them herself – they were the small individually-sized frozen ones she got from the supermarket. Still good, but I’d like to try making one from scratch. Then I’d follow up with a cherry pie for dessert. That would have to be my favorite two crust pie…a nice cherry pie, bursting with the sweet juices, but with still a touch of tartness to it. I know some cooks prefer to bake their cherry pies with the attractive lattice strips on top, but I’ll make it easy and just stick a bird in there.
Chicken and cherry pies… I think that makes a pretty good meal that would bring the birds a’flocking, wouldn’t you agree?