The real birds of Christmas

We're all familiar with The Twelve Days of Christmas. Every year, the festive classic is sung the world over. But what about the many birds it mentions? Do partridges really live in pear trees? And exactly what is a calling bird? Read on to find out.

A partridge, but not in a pear tree?

The first gift handed out during the Twelve Days of Christmas was, of course, a partridge in a pear tree. However, the chances of seeing this sight in the wild are pretty slim. 

Two species can be found in the UK - the introduced Red-legged Partridge and the native Grey Partridge. Both birds are ground dwelling and occupy open, flat habitats. The odds of seeing either in any sort of tree, let alone a pear tree, are rather long! Grey Partridge numbers have actually declined worryingly in recent years, with the latest State Of The UK’s Birds report revealing a 92 per cent drop has occurred since 1970. 

Red-legged partridges

Red-legged partridges

Two Turtle Doves

The singer of Twelve Days was lucky to receive two Turtle Doves from their true love, as this species has also declined significantly over the past 40 years. A 97 per cent drop has been recorded since 1970, with a lack of the birds' food - seeds and grain - thought to be an important factor behind this. The Turtle Dove is a migrant visitor to the UK, visiting in the summer before wintering in Africa.

Turtle Dove

Turle Dove

Three French Hens 

The only hens to be found in the UK are domesticated, but did you know they have a wild ancestor that resides in the forests of south-east Asia? Chickens are actually a subspecies of Red Junglefowl, which are thought to have first been domesticated at least 7,000 years ago.

Four Calling Birds

Have you ever listened to The Twelve Days of Christmas and wondered what a calling bird was? It is widely believed that this is actually an Americanisation of the traditional English word colly bird. What's a colly bird? Colly means black, so the birds being sung about are actually Blackbirds. The Americans were half right, as this species is well known for its attractive song, which is a familiar sound to any bird enthusiast.

Black Bird


Six Geese a Laying

The Twelve Days of Christmas features six geese, but that's only around half of the species that call the UK home. Eleven different species of the waterfowl have been recorded in Britain, ranging from common sights such as the Canada Goose to rare vagrants such as the Snow Goose and Lesser White-fronted Goose.

Seven Swans a Swimming

There are only actually three swan species in the UK. Two of these - the Whooper Swan and Tundra Swan - are winter visitors, spending the summer in Russia and northern Scandinavia. Mute Swans are the species you'll be most familiar with and are a common sight on British waterways. The species earned its name due to the fact it's less vocal than other swans. Indeed, there is an ancient belief that the Mute Swan spends its entire life in near silence before singing a beautiful song at the moment of its death. It is from this belief that the term swan song is derived.

Birder in the family? Take a look at our December offers and Christmas gift ideas.

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