Despite my obsession with birds, my true love never gave me a partridge in a pear tree, let alone any of the five other birds mentioned in ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, a carol published in England 221-years-ago. Even a non-birder should find it interesting that half of the gifts immortalized in that old song are birds. If you share my curiosity, read on.
The first gift and the first bird in the song, the ‘partridge in a pear tree’ is likely a Gray Partridge, which along with the Chukar is one of just two partridges we see in the United States. If you aren’t familiar with either, partridges are related to wild turkeys, grouse, ptarmigans, pheasants and prairie chickens. Interestingly, the French word for partridge is perdrix, pronounced 'per dree', suggesting that the pear tree of the song could be a typo. If the original version had been, 'A partridge, une perdrix', it might accidentally have been transcribed as 'A partridge in a pear tree.'
The song’s turtle dove is the European Turtle Dove, a bird that looks a lot like our Mourning Dove. The Turtle Dove migrates to southern Africa each winter, and I’m guessing there are times when you wish our Mourning Doves would do the same. But unlike our dove, the Turtle Dove population has dropped by nearly two-thirds, in part due to the other hemisphere’s pathetic practice of shooting migratory birds for fun. More cheerfully, the three French hens in the song would have been a welcomed gift, since French chickens (Faverolles) are gentle, good pets that lay lots of eggs. They’re also good to eat, which might rule out the family pet idea.
I used to think the fourth gift was ‘Four calling birds’, but when researching this article, I discovered it was ‘Four colly birds’. Live and learn. It turns out that a colly bird is really a blackbird, specifically the Common Blackbird. This European bird is a thrush like our American Robin, and not a true blackbird at all. This bird is also somewhat of a celebrity. It was considered sacred in classical Greek folklore, and it's the subject of ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence.' If you remember that poem, four and twenty blackbirds were baked in a pie, a dainty dish they set before the king. In medieval times, they put live birds under a pie crust just before serving, which explains how the birds were able to sing when the pie was opened. The poem ends with a blackbird snipping off the nose of the king’s maid, an ending typical for a medieval poem. Despite this bad behavior, the Common Blackbird was named the national bird of Sweden.
The final two birds of the song are action figures, possibly because 'six geese-a-laying' and 'seven swans-a-swimming' was a way to transition from perching birds to leaping lords. In any event, these birds are more familiar to Americans. We once lived on a river in Oregon and didn't have to travel far to see Tundra Swans. Our Canada Geese fit the song well, too, breeding each spring and raising dozens of goslings in our backyard. In Arizona’s desert, you get a backyard full of quail instead of geese. Like geese, quail lay lots of eggs, raise dozens of chicks and run around eating your flowers. Unlike quail, Canada Geese stand three-feet tall, have a wingspan of five-feet and perpetually pump out fertilizer. When you hear ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ this year, be thankful those are quail in your backyard, not geese.