Culture

Step Up Your Holiday Baking Game With These Realistic Bird Cookies

Ecologist Sarah MacLean is whipping up a cookie guide to the birds of North America, and she has some tips for your kitchen.

Any day now, as it has the past four years, an odd migration will begin. These birds get a later start than most fall migrants. They form strange flocks—California Quail wing-to-wing with Scrub-Jay and Lazuli Bunting—and travel west to east, rather than north to south. They are, by all accounts, delicious.

The birds in question, we should note, are cookies. Their creator is Sarah MacLean, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, who ships the confections each Christmas to her friends and former colleagues at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They don’t last long among Ithaca’s sweet-toothed predators.

“I have not seen much sharing when it comes to Sarah’s cookies,” says David Bonter, director of citizen science for the lab, who was MacLean’s undergraduate thesis adviser and receives a batch of birds twice a year, for Christmas and his birthday. The treats aren’t just tasty, Bonter adds. “They’re elaborate and they are accurate, which is something I appreciate.”

Accuracy is important because MacLean’s bird cookies have evolved from holiday goodies for a few friends to something more ambitious: a cookie guide to the birds of North America, which she hopes to eventually publish in book form. She bakes them to be as lifelike as possible, and posts a new species every weekday—a male and a female, when they’re distinguishable—on Twitter and on her blog, which includes information about each bird. She’s finished more than 75 species so far, and figures it will take two or three years to work through her Sibley guide.

“Baking has always been something that’s very important in my family,” MacLean says. “Cooking is sort of how we say we care to each other.” The idea of a cookie guidebook came up this past summer when she was hanging out with ornithology friends, but MacLean first combined her love of baking with her passion for birds during finals week in her sophomore year at Cornell. “It was my time to de-stress a little bit and stop studying for a few hours,” she says. “I had all these wonderful new friends and colleagues who were interested in birds.” So she showed them she cared with cookies.

MacLean started out baking species she saw around campus: Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, and White-breasted Nuthatch. Making them realistic required some ingenuity. “The bird cookie cutters at the store left something to be desired,” she says. So she started making her own out of disposable aluminum baking sheets. Her blog shares how to make the cookie cutters, along with her sugar cookie recipe. Getting the icing colors right is one of the biggest challenges and requires lots of trial and error, she says.

MacLean makes her own cookie cutters and carefully applies the icing to match a bird's plumage as closely as possible. Photo: Sarah MacLean

Now back in her native California, MacLean is working on her doctoral dissertation, which involves using century-old field journals to study how California birds are shifting their range in response to climate change. (Audubon recently reported on related findings from her colleagues.) Every three weeks or so, she spends the better part of a day baking and decorating a batch of cookies covering around 15 bird species. Once she’s photographed them, she contributes most of the cookies to an important cause: space exploration. MacLean’s boyfriend is a planetary geologist with the Mars rover project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and shares the treats with his colleagues.

MacLean is also an accomplished artist; she posts an illustration of each bird to accompany the cookie photos on Twitter, and prints her designs on shirts, mugs, and other merchandise. In fact, she plans to make scientific illustration a focus of her career. “I personally feel like a really important part of being a scientist is doing these outreach things and finding ways to get people excited,” she says.

Here at Audubon, we don’t need any help getting excited about birds, but we were nonetheless delighted to find ourselves at the eastern terminus of this season’s cookie flyway. Our commitment to rigorous reporting required us to sample each species that alighted in our newsroom, including a Northern Cardinal, Greater Sage-Grouse and Audubon logo-style Great Egret. The cookies got a little smushed in the mail, but we can now confirm the reports from Cornell: They were realistic and really tasty. 

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Five Tips for Making Bird Cookies

  • Draw your cookie cutter shape on a piece of paper, then shape the aluminum around it, using a pencil or other fine-tipped object to help with beaks and other tight corners.
  • Start with simple birds like Northern Cardinal, Black-capped Chickadee, and Eastern Bluebird—they’re less likely to break than long-limbed species.
  • For cookies that retain their shape and come out pillowy, try baking them inside the cookie cutters.
  • Unless they’re essential to the bird’s form, skip the legs and feet, which can be fragile and hard to shape.
  • Apply most of the icing with a butter knife, then add details with pipettes. 
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