One of the most famous festive carols has to be ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, in which a very fortunate person is gifted some extraordinary things, ranging from nine ladies dancing to five gold rings and twelve drummers drumming. Within this list of generosity are a number of birds, but if someone was actually trying to gather these together today to give to their true love, how easy a task would it really be?
A (Grey) Partridge (perdix perdix) in a Pear Tree
Grey partridge was once upon a time one of the most widespread game birds in the UK, thriving on temperate steppe grasslands and adapting to open arable landscapes across Europe. Between 1870 and about 1930 the population was high enough to sustain an average annual shooting of 2 million birds a year. Following the second world war, the population dropped about 80% in 40 years, principally due to the widespread use of insecticides and herbicides which respectively killed many of the insects that grey partridge chicks relied on for food and the food of the insects. Further, as fields were enlarged much of the grassy nesting cover necessary for the species to thrive was destroyed. A rise in predation is also blamed for more recent losses in numbers, especially from corvids and mustelids.
Two Turtle Doves (Streptopelia turtur)
The gentle purring sound of the turtle dove is a beautiful sound in summer, but only if you are lucky enough to hear it. It has become increasingly rare in recent years and is on the red list of species. It is thought that since 1995 the population has declined 91% across the UK! It is smaller and darker than a collared dove and a little bit larger than a blackbird. It has mottled chestnut and black upper parts and a black tail with a white edge. Its decline has been put mostly down to a shortage of grain availability during its breeding season, resulting in fewer nesting attempts. It is mostly found in southern and eastern England although can be found in eastern parts of Wales. If radical action is not taken it is likely that this iconic bird will disappear forever in the UK. Thankfully there is a great campaign called Operation Turtle Dove which aims to save the species from extinction.
Four Calling (Coaly) Birds (Blackbird – Turdus merula)
Older versions of the song will always refer to ‘coaly’ or ‘colley’ birds, which must refer to blackbirds as one of the most common birds in Britain. From about 1986 populations have been rising again after a fall in the 1970s. The song of the blackbird is iconic and is a firm favourite amongst the great British public. Oddly enough, female black birds are brown.
Six (Greylag) Geese a Laying (Anser anser)
The largest of all the wild geese native to Britain, this fantastic bird is the ancestor of most domestic geese. Greylags are resident in much of eastern England and a winter visitor to much of Scotland. It is on the amber list of Birds of Conservation concern but it seems to be doing ok. The birds were reintroduced to much of southern Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.
Seven (Mute) Swans a Swimming (Cygnus olor)
Between 1986 and 2011 populations of Mute Swans increased by 240%, principally due to the banning of lead weights for fishing. Success also very much depends on the quality of individual habitats and the fact that many waterways have been cleaned up in recent years has certainly helped the bird. The mute swan has a characteristic orange bill with black at the base. Bewick’s and Whooper Swans have a more yellowy bill.
If you want to find out what the the various gifts really symbolise click here.