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Birds of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'

 

...and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

Even if you hadn't read the headline on this page, you'd know what song this lyric is from, wouldn't you? Didn't most of us learn it as children? Originally a chant or memory game,* The Twelve Days of Christmas was first published in 1780, in England, but it's probably older than that and French in origin. Various versions have been recited and sung through the centuries.

The lyrics refer to the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany. Depending on how it’s calculated, the days begin on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or the day after. It wasn't put to music until the 1800s. The melody we sing today was written in 1909.

   

In addition to all the energetic people in the song -- pipers piping, lords-a-leaping, ladies dancing, and maids a-milking -- there are seven birds featured. Have you ever wondered what species the songwriter(s) had in mind? We can't know for sure, but here's what people who've made a study of it believe the birds to be:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
A partridge in a pear tree.

Partridges are in the pheasant family, native to Europe, Asia, Africa and Middle East. The partridge of this song is likely one of two strong possibilities. The first is the CHUKAR PARTRIDGE (Alectoris chukar), a native of Europe and Asia. They've been introduced into the western U.S. and southern Canada, inhabiting arid, rocky areas. photo: Olaf Oliviero Riemer / Wiki

   

 

The second most likely partridge is the GRAY PARTRIDGE (Perdix perdix), a traditional game bird of Europe and Asia. They've been introduced into flat agricultural areas along the U.S./Canada border and are especially noted for their huge clutches -- up to 22 eggs! photo: marek Szczepanek / Wiki
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On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Two turtle doves.

The doves are probably EUROPEAN TURTLE DOVES (Streptopelia turtur), migrating birds of Europe, Turkey, Africa. Timid and dainty, they live in open woodlands, occasionally visiting gardens. They've come to be symbols of devoted love, because they form strong pair bonds. Their name comes from their song, a vibrating, deep “turrrr.” photo: Yuvalr / Wiki
   

 

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Three french hens.


The hens are probably a species of fancy chicken native to France. There are three main possibilities that date back several centuries: the Crèvecœur (kref-KURR) and the Houdan (oo-DAW), now raised mainly for show, and the La Flèche (La FLESH), a rare breed raised for show and for meat in expensive French restaurants. All three are also raised in the U.S. photo-left: Crèvecœur chicken by Blaise.desaintjouin / Wiki; photo-right: Houdan chicken by Eponimm / Wiki
   

 

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Four calling birds.

The calling birds are "colly" birds in the original version of the song. Colly (or collie) is from “colliery,” an old English word for coal mine. It was also used when referring to blackbirds (black like coal). The colly bird is most likely the COMMON BLACKBIRD, also called the Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula). They weren't called "blackbirds" until 1486. Common Blackbirds have a melodious song, are the national bird of Sweden. They inhabit Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand. photo: male Common Blackbird singing, by Malene Thyssen / Wiki (CC BY-SA 2.5)

   

 

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Five golden rings.


The rings are probably RING-NECKED PHEASANTS (Phasianus colchicus). Native to China and East Asia, they’ve been introduced into other continents, including N. America. They live on farmland, fields with brushy cover, tall grasses, woodland borders. Males take “harems” of numerous females and aggressively defend them from rivals. They can fly, but typically run for cover. The state bird of South Dakota. photo of male, by Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife / Wiki
   

 

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Six geese-a-Laying.


The GRAYLAG GOOSE (Anser anser), the ancestor of all domesticated geese, is the most likely candidate here. Wild populations inhabit wetlands in Europe, Asia, China. Wild Graylag populations in the U.S. are escaped domestic geese. The "lag" part of their name is said to refer to their lagging behind, because they migrate later than other geese. Their call is a loud “honk.” photo: Olivier / Wiki
   

 

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Seven swans a-swimming.

Now protected by law, swans were once a common meat at royal banquets. The MUTE SWAN (Cygnus olor) is likely this verse’s dish. The largest birds in the world and native to Europe, they've been introduced into the U.S. Named “Mute” because they’re less vocal than other swans. When they curve their neck, it looks graceful and elegant to us, but it's actually a threat display. Powerful birds, they aggressively defend their nests. In the U.S., they out-compete the native Trumpeter Swan for food and are considered a threat in some areas. photo: Dick Dunn / Wiki
   

*Wikipedia: "...memories-and-forfeits" game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet."

 

 

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