Meet the Festive Flock of Birds in the 12 Days of Christmas
Have you ever noticed how many gifts in 'The 12 Days of Christmas' are birds? Discover fun facts about the festive Christmas birds in the carol.
With the holidays approaching, it’s time to sing all our favorite carols—”Deck the Halls,” “Silver Bells,” “Let it Snow,” and more. Birders, especially, might enjoy “The 12 Days of Christmas.” After all, many of the gifts are our feathered friends! Here, we’re delving a little deeper to learn all about the song’s delightful Christmas birds.
A Partridge in a Pear Tree
The carol doesn’t give us any info about which kind of partridge perched in the pear tree, but in North America, there’s a decent chance it could’ve been a gray partridge. These stout, gray-feathered Christmas carol birds have rusty coloring on their faces and brown-tipped wing feathers. Preferring to dine on seeds, they’re usually spotted in grasslands and fields rather than trees. You might think they look similar to quail, and you’d be right—but technically, they’re part of different bird “families.” Chukar and red-legged partridges also call North America home.
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Two Turtle Doves
The duo of birds in this part of the song refers to the European turtle dove. A relative of pigeons and mourning doves, they make their homes in forests and woodlands in the southern United Kingdom. It’s not hard to see why they’d merit inclusion in a carol; they’re lovely birds, with orange edging on their wing feathers and dark accents on their necks. Sadly, they’re considered one of the most at-risk bird species in the United Kingdom. Their numbers have declined 93% since the 1970s.
Check out 12 peaceful dove gifts and present ideas.
Three French Hens
So, “French hens” aren’t a particular species of chicken like turtle doves are a particular species of dove. Instead, the lyric likely refers to hens (aka female chickens) that come from France. In a disappointing twist for birders, the “three French hens” referred to in the song might’ve been destined for the dinner table. French hens were considered a delicacy when the carol was written in 1780, so receiving three of them would’ve made for a yummy holiday feast.
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Four Calling* Birds
If you’ve been singing “four calling birds,” then surprise! You’ve fallen prey to one of the most widespread misheard lyrics of all time. The written word upon the carol’s composure was four “colly” birds. What the heck’s a colly bird? At the time, a “colly bird” referred to a blackbird, a thrush or even a regular ol’ songbird. Could the colly birds also be calling birds? Well, that’s up to your imagination.
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Five Gold Rings
There’s a dual interpretation to the fifth gift. Some believe the “five gold rings” were, literally, five jewelry rings made from gold…while others think the rings refer to the feathers around ring-necked pheasants’ necks.
There’s no “wrong” answer—but we’re going with the bird-related explanation because it fits in with the first seven days of birdy gifts.
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Six Geese a-Laying
Many types of geese exist in North America (both wild and domestic), but when considering the subgroup, it’s hard not to think of the Canada goose. You’d be hard-pressed to escape their trumpet-like honking as they migrate south for winter and back north in the spring. (Or maybe not, if your local geese are permanent residents.) As for “a-laying,” a literal interpretation would mean the geese are laying eggs. So yes, the recipient has six geese to start… but they’ll soon have more.
Want to see more Christmas birds? Join the Christmas Bird Count!
Seven Swans a-Swimming
Of the birds referenced in “The 12 Days of Christmas,” this group is perhaps the most straightforward. Most birders have some knowledge of swans, having either had the fortune of seeing them in real life or hearing of the romantic associations they carry. Their elegance and grace would have made them a cherished present to include in the song (we recommend gifting a swan or other bird Christmas ornament instead). Birders in the United States may see tundra swans, trumpeter swans and mute swans.