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All About the Birds in "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

Bird lovers, here's your chance to get acquainted with the twelve birds of the famous holiday song.

December 7, 2023 4 min read
All About the Birds in "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me . . . a partridge in a pear tree.”

As one of the most popular Christmas songs, you’re bound to hear "The Twelve Days of Christmas" at least once this holiday season. It’s sung by children and adults throughout December, and features several different types of birds - all of which have their own unique traits and personality. 

The bird lovers among you may find your curiosity piqued, especially since they're not the kinds of animals you'd normally see in someone's home. So grab an eggnog and curl up to these descriptions of each feathered friend mentioned in the song.

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

The patridge is a little round bird that vaguely resembles a quail. However, they also have chicken-like features and may even substitute for chicken on the hunter's table. Because they also serve as prey for many woodland animals, they have evolved into prodigious breeders, with a single partridge often watching over 22 eggs at a time.

"Flighty" is a word that might have been invented for the partridge. These birds prefer to avoid humans, even though many of them inhabit farms. Their omnivorous diet allows them to feed themselves quite well without human help.

Two Turtle Doves

You might assume that turtle doves would add a serene, soothing note to the usually hectic holiday season. These small, light-gray members of the pigeon family are known for their soft, trilling song. They spend the warmer months in England or Eastern Europe, migrating to warmer locales in the winter. Turtle doves lay only a couple of eggs at a time and eat mostly seeds, fruits, and grains.

Sadly, turtle doves have been steadily losing sustainable habitats, causing their numbers to shrink. In fact, it's against the law in many places to keep them as pets.

Three French Hens

If you receive three French hens, they may each represent one of the three common breeds of this European chicken. The Bresse is so prized by the French that France maintains strict breeding laws, although you can get American-bred ones in the U.S. The Crevecoeur has a distinctive crest, while the Faverolles comes in several colors. All three are known for the high quality of their meat.

You don't have to eat French hens to appreciate them. These birds have a friendly, calm personality that makes them nice companions. Handle them from a young age, and they'll become devoted pets.

Four Calling Birds

What the heck are calling birds, anyway? The first printed edition of the song's lyrics actually refers to them as "colly birds" -- blackbirds. These medium-sized birds often do look black, although young and female specimens have brown plumage instead. They can live several years as long as they have a steady diet of softer foods such as worms, insects, and berries on their feeding grounds.

You can encourage blackbirds to visit your property regularly by leaving some of their favorite snacks around the yard. Examples include mealworms, sunflower hearts, little balls of fat, and any feed mix made for soft-billed birds.

Six Geese of Laying

The Christmas goose was a fixture of Victorian holiday tables. Today, you're more likely to see geese frequenting local ponds, but they're just as happy to splash around in your backyard kiddie pool. When these birds aren't in the water, they benefit from clean, spacious coops. Make sure they have plenty of greens to graze on as their staple food.

You may have heard that geese can get aggressive around humans. While this holds true for strangers, you can turn these birds into friendly family members once they accept you as part of their flock. You may even find that you can feed them by hand!

Seven Swans a-Swimming

"Swans a-swimming" is certainly an apt phrase. These enormous birds spend most of their time floating on lakes and ponds. They prefer to feed on aquatic plants but will eat ground-based flora as needed. People who choose to keep and raise swans get them in male-female pairs that can breed a whole swan population.

Unfortunately, there are several potential barriers to keeping swans. Some areas won’t let you keep them, while others merely prohibit breeding. Even if you can keep all the swans you want, you'd be hard pressed to find enough free space for these massive creatures. Bear in mind that swans won't hesitate to attack humans, especially during their mating season -- and these 30-pound hulks can do damage, so you're better off admiring them from afar.

Any Bird Requires Specialized Vet Care

One final note: If you decide to adopt a bird more suited to life as a pet than the examples listed above, don't assume that all veterinary clinics have the proper expertise to care for it. Do your research, call around, and get as many referrals from satisfied bird owners as you can before adopting any kinds of exotic pet. Once you've found both your bird and your avian veterinarian, you can relax and enjoy all twelve days of Christmas!

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