Birds of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’


On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me:


Partridge in a Pear Tree. (© iClipart)

A partridge in a pear tree

You know what song this line is from! 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. 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.

To begin, the partridge. Partridges are in the pheasant family and native to Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The bird of the first lyric is likely one of two strong possibilities.

The first is the CHUKAR (CHEW-car) PARTRIDGE, a native of Europe and Asia. Introduced into the western U.S. and southern Canada, they inhabit arid, rocky areas.


Chukar Partridge, Alectoris chukar. (Olaf Oliviero Riemer / Wiki; cc by 3.0)

The second most likely partridge is the GRAY PARTRIDGE, 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!

Gray Partridge, Perdix perdix. (Marek Szczepanek / Wiki; cc by-sa 3.0)

 On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Two turtle doves
The doves are probably EUROPEAN TURTLE DOVES, migrating birds of Europe, Turkey and 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.”
European Turtle Dove, Streptopelia turtur. (Revital Salomon / Wiki; cc by-sa 4.0)

European Turtle Dove, Streptopelia turtur. (Revital Salomon / Wiki; cc by-sa 4.0)

 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 similar-looking Crèvecœur (kref-KURR) and the Houdan (oo-DAW), which are now raised mainly for show, and the La Flèche (La FLESH), a rare breed raised for show and for meat in expensive French restaurants.
Houdan Chicken (Eponimm / Wiki; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Houdan Chicken (Eponimm / Wiki; cc by-sa 3.0)

 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, as in “black like coal.”
The colly bird is most likely the COMMON BLACKBIRD, also called the Eurasian Blackbird. They weren’t called “blackbirds” until 1486. Common Blackbirds have a melodious song and are the national bird of Sweden. They inhabit Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

Common Blackbird, Turdus merula. (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. Native to China and East Asia, they’ve been introduced into other continents, including North America. They live on farmland, fields with brushy cover, in tall grasses, and 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.

Ring-necked Pheasant, Phasianus colchicus. (Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife; cc by-sa 2.0)

 On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Six geese-a-Laying
The GRAYLAG GOOSE is the ancestor of all domesticated geese and the most likely candidate here. Wild populations inhabit wetlands in Europe, Asia and 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.”

Graylag Goose, Anser anser. (Olivier / Wiki; cc by 2.0)

 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 is likely this lyric’s dish. The largest birds in the world and native to Europe, they’ve been introduced into the U.S. They’re 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.
Mute Swan. (Dick Dunn / Wiki; cc by-sa 3.0)

Mute Swan Cygnus olor. (Dick Dunn / Wiki; cc by-sa 3.0)

*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.”