You remember it, that song of many verses that describes gifts given, one for each of the 12 days stretching from Christmas Day to the Epiphany. The carol, first published in England in 1780, is believed to have French origins. But you don’t have to look to England or France to fill your mythical gift list — you can find local options.

The gift for the first day is a partridge in a pear tree. The actual English partridge, the gray partridge, is a species introduced here for hunting. Easier to find are ruffed grouse, often known as partridge.

Pear trees grow here thanks to efforts by the University of Minnesota Department of Horticulture Science. Choose from seven varieties, all good in Zone 4, two in Zone 3.

Two turtle doves are the gift for the second day. They are close cousins to our mourning doves, a perfect substitute. The Eurasian collared dove, an introduced species more common here each year, also would be appropriate.

Three French hens arrive at the door on the third day. Minnesota breeders of fancy chickens have French breeds. Julia Child has a wonderful recipe for a French roast chicken.

Four “calling” birds is what we often hear as the next gift. Research reveals that the original lyric was colly birds. Colly means very black. England has a species called blackbird (which is a thrush). Here, red-winged blackbirds are everywhere, some even overwintering.

Day Five brings us to five golden rings. Don’t make a literal reading for this gift. Stay with the bird theme, and give five ring-necked pheasants. This is a common game bird. Some researchers suggest golden rings meant “gulderers,” Scottish for turkey. Should you so choose, choose a wild one.

Your true love sends six-geese-a-laying on Day Six. In England that would be the native greylag goose, ancestor of most of our domestic geese. You’ll need to find a willing farmer. The greylag is an infrequent visitor to North America, and never, so far, to Minnesota.

Seven swans-a-swimming — the British would give the mute swan, seen now and then in Minnesota, but designated an invasive species. Trumpeter swans, once extirpated, now regarded as reintroduction marvels, are a more thoughtful gift. Hundreds of these majestic birds spend winters on the Mississippi River near Monticello, Minn.

Ornithologist Jeff Price, who wrote about this several years ago, said the idea behind the song is not to kill the birds, but to hope for eggs you can cook for holiday guests. In that case, each gift must include the appropriate pair.

As for the leaping lords, dancing ladies and maids on milk stools, there is nothing birdy about them. But perhaps a spotted sandpiper for Day 11 or a drumming downy woodpecker for Day 12?


Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at