Food History

All About Pie Birds, the Whimsical Victorian-Era Baking Tool

Your grandmother had 10 of them, but do you really need one to make a good pie?

March 12, 2021
Photo by Bobbi Lin

While you’ve likely heard the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” with its “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,” it would probably surprise you to find a bird’s head peeking out of your fresh-from-the-oven dessert, whether or not it “began to sing” upon being sliced.

Don’t worry, though—there aren’t live birds in most pies, let alone two dozen. While the rhyme possibly alludes to the trials and tribulations of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, it may have served as inspiration for pie birds: hollow ceramic figurines designed to vent steam from the pastries, according to Linda Fields, author of Four & Twenty Blackbirds, Vol. 1 and 2, an anthology about the avian kitchen helpers.

The precursor to pie birds, known as pie funnels (or vents, or whistles), were developed in the Victorian era in Britain as a tool intended to keep juicy fruit and meat pies from bubbling over, and to make for a crispier crust. Back then, bakers put small, ceramic, cylindrical or hourglass-shaped funnels in the center of double-crust pies, to release steam. Around the 1930s, ceramics companies in the U.S. started taking artistic liberties, likely drawing on the nursery rhyme, and the vents morphed into whimsical birds with open beaks. Fields notes that the first documented pie bird was “a rooster with an S-shaped neck, made by the Pearl China Company in Ohio,” adding that in the years that followed, thousands of different iterations were made. Some companies also made similarly styled elephants, giraffes, pigs, dragons, and mustached chefs, among others, but the most popular was the blackbird.

Pie birds are nestled into a filled pie’s center, then covered by the top sheet of dough around the critter’s neck. When baked, the bird appears to hatch from the center of the pie, steam shooting out of its beak (or head, or trunk).

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Top Comment:
“I'd be curious about the connection -- if any -- between these "pie birds/animals" and baking patty-pans, which I am guessing serve the same function. We recently found out about these tools from a Beatrix Potter story called "The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan," which our toddler has made us read (and act out!) a thousand times. ”
— Dessito
Comment

While at one point the ceramic sous-chefs were common sights in bakeries, cooking shops, and home kitchens, pie funnels—animal-shaped or otherwise—fell out of fashion by the mid 20th century, which Fields credits to fewer people baking at home, as well as the invention of frozen pie crusts as a stand-alone retail product (patented in the 1950s and ubiquitous by the mid 1960s).

Plus, strictly speaking, pie birds are not necessary to bake a good pie.

When a double-crust pie is in the oven, the fruit (or meat, if you're making something savory, like a chicken pot pie) filling juices start to boil—and when the water turns to steam, it looks for a way to escape, usually through the weakest part of the crust’s crimped edge. Frequently, pies without vents rupture and some of the filling spills over the side, making a mess. It can also render the top crust soggy and the filling soupy, instead of that sticky-thick texture you can drag a fork through. However, to avoid a sloppy, less-than-perfect bake doesn’t mean you must shove a ceramic funnel into your pie: It’s as simple as cutting slits or shapes into the top crust, doing a lattice-top crust instead, or using a crumble topping (or forgoing a top crust altogether!), which allows steam to escape without sacrificing the pie’s texture. It’s also not easy to cleanly remove the pie birds, which results in an unsightly crater in the center of the pie. (Though one could see this as a positive: another reason to pile on the whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla, perhaps?)

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Some professional bakers have seen a resurgence in the popularity of pie birds just in the past couple years, as younger generations discover the tools on eBay, Etsy, and vintage shops, an increasingly popular way to shop for classic kitchen tools. "I definitely think they’re having a heyday right now, which might be due to more people baking because of the pandemic. But I feel like there’s a renewed interest in food traditions, so that could also be why we’re seeing them again," said Kristen Daily, owner of Pie Bird Pies, a catering and pop-up pie company in Des Moines, Iowa.

Julie Albertson, owner of The Texas Pie Company in Kyle, Texas, argues that the newfound interest in the fanciful kitchen tool has more to do with how photogenic or, dare one say, Instagrammable it is.

"It’s really just a cute way to showcase the pie and present it on the table," Albertson notes.

The marriage between vintage and Instagrammable when it comes to kitchen tools is clearly evident these days: When Samin Nosrat’s Netflix series Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat debuted in 2018, people on the internet began madly searching for her yellow vintage bean-cooking pot (a Dansk Kobenstyle casserole); popular direct-to-consumer cookware company Great Jones launched a baking tool set with items inspired by vintage Pyrex designs in late 2020.

Both Daily and Albertson have numerous pie birds, both noting that customers will gift them their thrift-store finds. While they do use them when making a pie at home, neither reaches for the gizmos when baking in a professional setting. Similarly, Fields has over 1,000 in her collection (her favorite being a mother bluebird with chicks in a yellow nest made by Artisan Galleries), but most of hers are just for show.

Still, for many home cooks, the birds add a touch of playfulness and are a way to bond with other bakers. For Pie Bird Pies, it’s certainly the latter. Their namesake has become a vehicle for connection with their customers. Many who visit Daily’s pie pop-ups will tell her about older family members using pie birds.

"A lot of people remember their grandmother using them and will tell us about how tasty her pies were," Daily said. "It’s a fun way to connect and talk about a shared love of pie."

Do you have a pie bird (or pie animal)? Are they purely for show or do you swear by them? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • marilu
    marilu
  • Dessito
    Dessito
  • Slordsmi
    Slordsmi
  • Bernadette Andaloro
    Bernadette Andaloro
  • Lew R
    Lew R
baileyberg

Written by: baileyberg

19 Comments

marilu April 24, 2021
Such a fun read! More articles like this, please. :)
 
Dessito April 21, 2021
I'd be curious about the connection -- if any -- between these "pie birds/animals" and baking patty-pans, which I am guessing serve the same function. We recently found out about these tools from a Beatrix Potter story called "The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan," which our toddler has made us read (and act out!) a thousand times.
 
Slordsmi March 15, 2021
Love the Pie Bird story. Have alot, and use them. Hard to have a favorite, but have the most recent Star Wars one, Peorg. Everyone loves it. I used it for my daughters 40th Birthday Pie. And surprised her with one of her own. Pie is my thing. Thanks for the terrific article!
 
Bernadette A. March 15, 2021
I'd be happy to tell you what I know about them, Lew. I also have email But don't know if we should put our contact info out on this forum.
 
Lew R. March 15, 2021
I agree about a different contact. Just not sure how to exchange one!
 
Smaug March 18, 2021
There is a personal message function on this site.
 
Lew R. March 14, 2021
I've been collecting the "birds" for years now, but only have 16! I tried shopping online, mostly from Britain, and mostly WAY outside my budget. I rarely find any vintage ones in my area, and the new ones I do find all look alike. My most unique example is a sheep - head up and mouth open. I never knew there was a Pie Bird Convention in Tennessee, and that's my home base! I'd love to find one - anyone?? I have only used them in a pie a few times...maybe I need to do some baking.
 
MacGuffin March 14, 2021
The Polish Pottery shop has some cute ones for $10; flat rate $5 shipping, so it pays to buy more than one.
 
Lew R. March 15, 2021
Thank you for the info!
 
MacGuffin March 15, 2021
My pleasure. I ordered two--they're sweet!
 
Katrinka March 14, 2021
My mother used a pie bird when she made steak and kidney pie (which I didn't like) or steak and mushroom pie (which I loved). Once, when it was the former, I pointed to the bird and said "Look! It's gagging!" It was always smiling for the latter.
 
Bernadette A. March 14, 2021
I have a collection of about 40 of them that I acquired with volume I of he book when I attended the first ever pie bird convention in Tennessee. Some are made in England and some are made in the United States. I am retired no and thinking about downsizing but finding it hard to part with them. Also don't know how to go about selling them.
 
Lew R. March 14, 2021
I'd love to see/hear about your collection Bernadette. Any way we can communicate about them? I do have e-mail. Marilew (a.k.a Lew)
 
drdeb March 14, 2021
I have a collections of pie birds that displayed in my kitchen. I have 20! Thanks fir sharing the article!!’
 
drdeb March 14, 2021
I hate spell check. It should be for
and not fir!!!
 
MacGuffin March 14, 2021
I think it's "Anne" Boleyn.
 
Kathryn D. March 14, 2021
I have a small pie bird collection - 16 total. Some are from the 1930's, 40's, 50's, and 70's. A few are handmade. My most recent piebird is a porg (Star Wars) from Le Creuset. I have used my English blackbird from the 1970's a couple of times. I love them all.
 
Nadine S. March 14, 2021
I own 2 Pie Birds and have had them a few years now. A blue and white birdie and a red Le Creuset bird. They certainly add a dash of adorable when presenting my homemade pie!
 
FrugalCat March 13, 2021
I have heard about inserting an uncooked penne or ziti noodle in the crust to act as a pie bird. Not as cute, but effective.