For a bird watcher, the song "The 12 Days of Christmas" could be a gift list or a wish list. It's mostly about birds.
Two doves, three hens, seven swans. But, what kind of doves, hens and swans?
A little research provides answers. That work was done several years ago by — what else? — an ornithologist named Jeff Price and his wife, Amy. With his permission, we explain thusly.
The song, believed to originate in France in the 17th century, lists gifts given on the days between Christmas and Epiphany. The song moved high on the Holiday Top 40 when it crossed the channel to England.
The birds that fly out of the melody would be European species, but they have North American equivalents.
The first day, a native British partridge, the gray partridge, is the loner in the fruit tree. Gray partridges have been introduced here for hunting. A better substitution would be a sharp-tailed or ruffed grouse.
European turtledoves are likely the pair of doves given on Day Two. Our substitute could be the non-native Eurasian collared-dove, or our native mourning doves.
The three French hens aren't as fancy as they sound. They're barnyard chickens. Chickens once were wild birds, though, the red jungle fowl of Southeast Asia the first to be domesticated. For something fancy give our native greater prairie chicken.
It's not "four calling birds" which is how I hear it. It's "colly" birds, colly referring to soot or coal black. The Prices think that the colly birds might have referred to the European blackbird (which is really a thrush, related to our robin). Substitute red-winged blackbirds.
As we sing the song today, the fifth day of Christmas brings five golden rings. The Prices believe that the original lyrics used the term "gulderers." Gulderer is Scottish for a turkey or perhaps a guinea fowl. You'll need to nab wild turkeys for this gift, perhaps right out of your backyard.
Six geese a-laying likely refers to the greylag goose of Europe, an ancestor to many of our domestic goose breeds. Our equivalent would be the greater white-fronted goose.
The swans, seven a-swimming, most likely are mute swans. These birds were common on the large English estates, where an elaborate celebration as described in the song might have been held. Mute swans are non-native here, introduced as decorative and regarded by conservation departments as pests. Our native trumpeter swan is what you want to wrap up.
You wouldn't eat your gift birds. The idea is the birds lay eggs for you to cook for guests. (Swan eggs boiled take more than three minutes.)
You get this exotic collection of birds plus eggs for adventuresome meals. You have to feed this feathered crowd, however. We recommend cracked corn.
What species is on my holiday list this year? Chocolate.