Christmas – the time for zany sweaters, old sherry, and a certain playlist on perpetually with jingly pop tunes becoming earworms for months afterwards. One tune will dominate, however; but did you know it’s all about the birds?
The Twelve Days of Christmas is one of the world’s oldest and most enduring seasonal carols that retains its popularity through its compulsive structure, lively imagery, and exuberant melody. Few can resist joining in, if only for the fifth line, belted out loud and clear.
The earliest known version appeared in a children’s book called Mirth With-out Mischief in 1780 as a “memory and forfeits” game, where singers recall the first and successive line until the dozen days are sung through; if they make a mistake, a forfeit must be paid (usually, a kiss or a gift). The lyrics and tune have changed over time, but one thing many believe to be true is that it is in fact all about birds.
1. Gray partridge
Not known for its pear tree-climbing prowess, the gray partridge is considered a game bird due to its ground-feeding ways, short flight distances and heavy bodies. Their call is a rapid rick-rick-rick as they rise in flight: they are very easy to hunt. Being widespread throughout the world, they are of Least Concern, although intensive farming practices in the UK have now placed it on the Red List. Perhaps it should learn to climb trees after all…
2. Turtle dove
This rapidly disappearing dove is named after its soft “turr turr” call which gives it the second part of its Latin name, Streptopelia turtur. Hunting and intensive cultivation mean they are struggling to maintain population numbers these days, but when they do, they form very strong pair bonds, making them emblems of devoted love. Once the song has been sung, the recipient should have 22 of them, and that’s a whole lotta love.
3. French hen
The Latin name for a chicken is Gallus gallus, and France was known as Gaul during Roman times: French hens are essentially domestic chickens. In an 1864 version, the line was briefly changed to three fat hens: at this time, the hens were prized by both the UK and France for the dinner table, a fad that persisted and now makes this bird and its relatives the most abundant in the world today.
4. Common blackbird
The next line “four calling birds” was adapted by Frederic Austin in 1905, whose version of the song is the one that we know today. However, the word “calling” is a misrepresentation of the folk word “colly” that used to be sung, meaning black – or coal-y. Enter Mr Blackbird.
5. European goldfinch
Back in the 1700s, the word for European goldfinches was goldspinks; goldfinches became very popular cage birds in the following century as a display of wealth and status, much like the wearing of gold rings and other precious metals that continues to the present day.
6. Barnacle goose
Our six geese a-laying could be barnacle geese, and these birds are so-named because it was once thought they emerged fully formed from goose barnacles. This myth stems from ignorance of geese migration, who would suddenly appear on bodies of water throughout Europe. The belief persisted so much that until recently, Catholics were still permitted to eat them during their meat-free Lent as they were considered to be fish.
7. Mute swan
Common on large English estates, mute swans would have featured frequently on the dinner table during the Christmas season. The species is easily distinguishable from others as it holds its neck in a distinctive S shape, a pose symbolising grace and elegance. This beauty in bird form was immortalised in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling”, a fairy tale about perception, unwarranted criticism, inner and external beauty, and hidden talents, something historians claim was the basis for Andersen’s own childhood as he grew from being regarded as a tall, ugly boy with a big nose and big feet into an exemplary author, actor and singer.
Aristotle used to write a lot about birds, but unlike his philosophical musings, he was largely wrong. Back in the 300s BC he claimed that these nocturnal birds drank the milk of goats and turned them blind, warning farmers to keep a look-out for the avian thieves in the goat-pens suckling at teats, draining them of the valuable liquid. It is possible this myth arose from the fact that these insect-feeding birds would share the hay with animals and snap at the scurrying creatures that ran over the goat’s bodies in the night. Calling them “maids” in the song perhaps make this act seem a little more attractive.
9. Crested grebe
One the world’s best loved courtship displays, the dance of crested grebes is described as water ballet. Facing each other, they first bob their heads side to side, turning to flick their tail feathers with their bills, then with their plumes spread wide, they shake, shimmy and preen, finally launching into the finale: rushing toward each other across the surface of the water, paddling frantically. Then, upright and side by side with bellies pushed together, as if in a waltz, they offer each other clumps of weed as a marital gift.
10. Grey heron
If you’ve ever disturbed a heron, you’ll be familiar with the grumpy “kraaak” they shout out as they leap high into the air and flap off somewhere more private. These long-legged, long-necked and long-beaked birds in their grey, black and white livery resemble strutting old lords used to exacting out their authority upon the masses, disgruntled and offended when things don’t go their way.
This water bird displays a characteristic action known as teetering, which at present is very little understood. Even chicks perform this motion, almost as soon as they hatch. The bird will rapidly bob their tails, bending their knees and rocking their bodies, a motion that has earned them many other names like teeter-peep, teeter-bob, jerk or perk bird. Often gathering in small groups, when seen in a line on the shore like this they look like they are bopping along to an unheard beat somewhere in the distance, their long bills piping out a tune.
Also known as winnowing or bleating, these usually secretive birds produce a drumming sound during their courtship displays which are held up in the air for all to see. The sound is produced by their tail feathers: launching themselves upwards, they then descend in deep dives, directing air via their wings to their exceptionally strong tails, the outer two feathers of which expand widely to produce the drumming sound. Humidity, height, speed and atmospheric pressure can create many different pitches to the vibrations, producing some rich harmonies and phat beats in the air, a fine way to pull together a song.