MSUToday
Published: Dec. 16, 2015

The birds of 'The 12 Days of Christmas'

Contact(s): Layne Cameron Media Communications office: (517) 353-8819 cell: (765) 748-4827 Layne.Cameron@cabs.msu.edu, Pam Rasmussen MSU Museum office: (517) 432-0872 cell: (517) 775-5887 rasmus39@msu.edu

Ever wondered about all the birds mentioned in the holiday standard, “The Twelve Days of Christmas?" Michigan State University’s Pamela Rasmussen, integrative biologist and coordinator of MSU’s global bird sounds website AVoCet, can help.

Rasmussen, who’s tied for the third-most bird discoveries in the world, reveals the inspiration for each of the Christmas birds:

  • The partridge in a pear tree is probably the red-legged partridge, which was introduced to England as a sporting bird just before the song was written. It's still widespread in the U.K. and can even be found in backyards. Here is the song of its close relative, the chukar partridge, from India.
  • The turtledoves are European turtledoves, which are native to England and would have been widespread in the 1700s. While they still breed in the U.K., their numbers and range have declined catastrophically in recent decades, partly due to intensive hunting in the Mediterranean during migration and partly due to habitat and resource loss. They are named for the "turr-turr" purring sound they make, not for any special resemblance to turtles.
  • The French hen is a chicken, a domestic variant of the red junglefowl, a species originating in South Asia and now the most abundant bird in the world (albeit mostly in cages). It is thought that French hen refers to a foreign type of chicken, not a distinct breed. One of many places where the chicken has reverted to a semi-wild state is Bermuda.
  • 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.
  • The geese a-laying are greylag geese, which are still widespread in England, and the progenitor of most breeds of domestic geese. The birds are a common sight on ponds and marshes and have a distinctive hoarse honking.
  • The swans a-swimming are mute swans, 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 have now been introduced to the U.S. and are an invasive species in Michigan. Not quite mute, they are however much quieter vocally than other swans.
  • As a bonus bird, here’s a mute swan taking flight in Michigan – the loud wing noise serves to advertise and defend their territory, like song does for most other birds.

Pam Rasmussen, MSU integrative biologist and assistant curator at the MSU Museum. Photo by Kurt Stepnitz

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