Happy Holidays from Seabrook Island Birders! May the season bring you many joys and maybe even a few wonderous feathered finds.
Pictures of Northern Cardinals, American Robins, Canada Geese and ducks are often seen on holiday cards. A little research shows how many different birds are in the popular song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. (Information provided by sites noted below.)
A Partridge in a Pear tree – The “partridge in a pear tree” is probably the Red-legged Partridge, a rotund seed-eater native to continental Europe.
It was introduced to England as a game bird in the 1770s, and it’s still common in the U.K. today. Another candidate might be the Grey Partridge. This small, chicken-like bird, also known as the Hungarian partridge, is native to Eurasia but now makes its home in agricultural grasslands along the United States–Canadian border. Gray Partridge hens produce a clutch of up to 22 eggs—one of the largest clutches of any bird species—meaning you’ll usually find more than just one partridge in a pear tree.
Two Turtle Doves -Were probably originally European turtle doves, native birds that were widespread in the U.K. when “The 12 Days of Christmas” was introduced. In the U.S. it would more likely be mourning doves. Male and female mourning doves work together to feed their babies “crop milk” or “pigeon milk” that’s secreted by their crop lining. These adult pairs tend to mate for life, which may be why the song’s composer reserved this bird for the second slot in the holiday countdown.
Three French Hens – The “French hen” referenced in this Christmas classic could be any chicken breed (as chickens are native to France). Unfortunately, if you spot a domesticated chicken, you can’t post in eBird as domesticated birds aren’t counted.
Four Calling Birds – Although recent renditions refer to them as “calling birds,” the original version uses “colly birds”—a colloquial British term that means “black as coal”—to describe this bird. Therefore, the common blackbird is widely considered the lover’s intended gift.
Five Golden Rings – A birder’s interpretation of this gift could be Ring-Necked Pheasants. The males’ bright copper and gold plumage makes it the perfect “gift”. Another site suggest five gold rings could refer to five “gold spinks” or Goldfinches.
Six Geese a laying – As a British Christmas carol, the reference is likely to the British bird, the Greylag goose. We of course are more likely to think of a Canada Goose.
Seven Swans a swimming – the seven swimming waterfowl are most likely mute swans. These large birds were long kept in semi-domesticity in England, where they were considered property of the Crown.
The remaining gifts are not as obvious birding gifts.
Eight Maids-a-milking – Two sites stretched it to be Magpies. They chose the black-billed magpie for its milky white belly.
Nine Ladies dancing – One site said the Parotia, “ballet dancing bird,” is the perfect choice to replace the Christmas carol’s “nine ladies dancing.” Male Parotias learn their unique dance moves from their fathers who use this display to attract a mate. Their decorative, six-quill plumes are dramatic and dazzling. These birds of paradise aren’t native to the song’s country of origin, but you can spot them in New Guinea, a former British territory.
Ten Lords-a-leaping – We sing the song with the ten lords a-leaping, but in the earliest known variant found in North America, on the Tenth Day of Christmas, the true love sent ten Cocks A-Crowing.
Eleven Pipers piping – Sandpipers could be the easy bird interpretation.
Drummers drumming – The most common drumming bird is said to be the Snipe but another site suggested the Ruffed Grouse is the drumming bird. When displaying for females or defending its territory, the male Ruffed Grouse beats its wings in the air to create a drumming sound that scares off potential threats. Another interesting Ruffed Grouse fact: the bird’s toes grow projections that act as snowshoes in the winter months.
Sites used in submitting this article:
The bird songs behind ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’
The 12 Birds of Christmas by John R. Henderson