Posted by: Sandy Steinman | December 24, 2021

Who are the twelve birds of Christmas?

from the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology


Ever wondered about all the birds mentioned in the famous Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” Pamela Rasmussen, an integrative biologist at Michigan State University, and coordinator of MSU’s crowd-sourced global bird sounds website, AVoCet shares the real bird species identities of all birds mentioned in the song.

The “partridge in a pear tree” is probably the red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa), which was introduced to England as a sporting bird just before the song was written. This bird breeds naturally in southwestern Europe.

The turtledoves are European Turtledoves (Streptopelia turtur), which are native to England and would have been widespread in the 1700s. They are named for the “turr-turr” purring sound they make, not for any special resemblance to turtles. Unfortunately, turtle doves are the UK’s fastest-declining bird species and they are threatened with global extinction.

The French hen is a chicken, a domestic variant of the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus), a species first domesticated at least five thousand years ago in Asia. Since then it has spread around the world, and the domestic form is kept globally as a very productive food source of both meat and eggs.

The “calling birds” are of unknown species, but one version of the song has them as “colly birds.” Colly means black, so they may be the Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula). Although it is dark in plumage and called a blackbird, it is actually a member of the thrush family and behaves in the same manner as the American Robin.

The “geese a-laying” are Greylag geese (Anser anser). The ancestor of most domestic geese, the Greylag is the largest and bulkiest of the wild geese native to the UK and Europe.

The “swans a-swimming” are Mute Swans (Cygnus olor), a species kept in Britain at the time in semi-domesticity and considered Crown property. This kept them from being hunted to extinction as they were in some other areas. They were intentionally brought to the United States by private breeders for display at zoos, parks, and private estates. Mute Swans are on California’s restricted species list and require a permit to be imported, transported, or owned.


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