A pie bird is a device which is inserted into a pie before baking for the purpose of ventilating the pie as it cooks. Using a pie bird prevents steam from building up and rupturing the pie, and it also helps the pie to release any juices which may build up during cooking, reducing the risk of an unsightly mess and a smoky oven. In addition to being functional, pie birds are also decorative, and some people like to collect them, whether or not they use them in pies.
The original pie bird design appears to date back to the 1700s. A traditional pie bird is made from ceramic, a material which is capable of handling the heat of the oven, and it is shaped like a bird with a gaping mouth. At the bottom of the bird, small arches allow steam and juices to enter the hollow body of the pie bird, while the mouth allows the steam to escape. The bird shape isn't required; pie birds can come in all types of shapes, ranging from decorative vegetables to miniature chefs.
To use a pie bird, a cook rolls out the bottom layer of pastry for a pie, presses it into the pie pan, and then places the pie bird in the middle. Next, the pie is filled around the pie bird, and the top layer of crust is carefully lowered over the device and the filling. The top of the pie bird projects from the pie, allowing steam to escape, while the rest of the body remains buried in the filling; to the more macabre minded, it looks like a bird is trapped in the pie.
In addition to venting steam, a pie bird also helps to support the upper crust of the pie. As a pie bakes, the middle has a tendency to collapse, especially if the pie is very juicy, and this can look unsightly. The pie bird acts as a pillar in the middle of the pie, holding up the top crust to ensure that it cooks crisply and evenly. For this reason, some people refer to pie birds as "crustholders." Pie birds are also known as pie funnels, pie vents, and pie chimneys, all reference to the venting function.
When a pie bird is used, the upper crust of a pie does not have to be pierced to allow steam to escape. Some people prefer this unbroken, smooth look, as it looks neater when presented on the plate. Some cooks also like the look of a whole pie served with a pie bird, as it looks old-fashioned.