Columnist takes flight of fancy for her true love
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:36 PM
With Thanksgiving under our belts, the holiday season floods in like a swiftly flowing river. With it come the incessant replays of holiday songs like the many-versed ``The Twelve Days of Christmas.'' Recently as the verses of this old 18th-century English song droned on and on at a community holiday program, I began to ponder why the song included so many birds: French hens, calling birds, swans a-swimming, geese a-laying, not to mention a partridge in a pear tree.
I wondered, if I wanted to give my truelove a gift of viewing all the song's birds, could I do it in the Pacific Northwest? And, to add a seasonal challenge, could I locate them during late December?
A partridge in a pear tree
Finding a partridge in a pear tree will be difficult. Actually, finding a partridge in any tree will be close to impossible, since the common partridge of England and Europe, Perdix perdix -- introduced to the United States in the early 1900s and named the gray partridge -- rarely perches above ground level.
To find a partridge in a pear tree, I'll try an overlay of both the bird's habitat and pear orchards. I'll probably have to settle for a ``partridge under a pear tree.''
The European turtledove (Streptopelia turtur), the likely inspiration for the song, is not established as a species in the United States, although small pockets of escapees survive in the wild. One close North American cousin of the European turtledove is the mourning dove. They stay in pairs, so if I see one, I'll likely find two.
Three French hens
Research provides no answers on what was intended by the French hens. However, I'm willing to hazard a guess: Since most English game birds are non-migratory, the French hen may refer to the one European species of quail (Coturnix coturnix) that is migratory. These small quail fly from France to England each spring and return in the fall. Back in the 1700s, the female of this species might have been known as a French hen and, being more exotic than England's common game birds, would have made a very special gift.
A close relative of the European quail is our California quail. This perky open-woodland bird is a common resident in western Washington. These birds congregate in extended family groups during the winter, so seeing three will be a snap.
Four calling birds
At first this phrase stumped me, since almost all birds call. Then I learned that the original song used the words ``colly birds'' from the term ``collied'' meaning coal black. The only common coal-black bird in England is the blackbird (Turdus merula), a member of the thrush family. The American robin and our varied thrush are close relatives of the Eurasian blackbird. Both the robin and thrush are common at this time of year. Neither are colly colored and probably not calling either, but during the holiday season I doubt anyone will mind.
Five golden rings
I always thought the rings meant jewelry. I was wrong. The rings also refer to birds: ring-necked pheasants. These golden-brown pheasants prefer drier, open areas, and tend to be solitary at this time of year, so it will take bit of searching to find five.
Six geese a-laying
Several species of geese could be the source of this verse. The key seems to be that the birds should be ``a-laying.'' A laying goose in late December would have been a prize, since most wild birds lay eggs only in the spring. We could solve the ``a-laying'' problem by changing the verse just slightly to read ``six geese a-lying'' (as in lying down rather than laying an egg.) Check out any public park near water or even golf courses and you'll see huge numbers of Canada geese lying around.
Seven swans a-swimming
Anyone willing to travel can easily spot seven swans ``a-swimming'' during late December. Simply take your truelove to the Skagit Flats to see tundra and trumpeter swans. The trick will be to tempt them from the field where they feed and out onto water to swim around.
Eight maids a-milking
Starting with this phrase, the song shifts from birds to people (maids, ladies and lords) involved in certain acts -- milking, dancing and leaping. The closest I could come, in ``birdland,'' for this ``milking'' verse -- and this is a stretch -- is the cowbird. In winter this ``cow pen bird'' flocks nears farms looking for grain.
Nine ladies dancing
Here I'm going to use the word ``ladies'' as a general term for females. I consider the prancing around of the female sandhill crane -- strutting her long, droopy back feathers that form a ``bustle,'' while lifting and fluttering her wings -- to be a beautifully choreographed dance. These cranes migrate through eastern Washington in fall and will be long gone to their wintering grounds farther south by now.
Ten lords a leaping
The lords of December beaches are sandpipers, who can leap about on one leg as adroitly as pogo stick experts while keeping the other leg tucked into warm belly feathers. Western sandpipers, one of the most common leaping lords on our beaches and estuaries, gather in flocks during winter so seeing 10 will not be a problem.
Eleven pipers piping
The piping plover, a pale-white shorebird named after its pippinlike call, can be found in flocks much larger than 11. The problem: They are a species of the eastern seashore and by December have moved south to Florida. I'm afraid I'm skunked on this one.
Twelve drummers drumming
Finally, the drummers. Several species of the grouse family use their inflated neck sacks or wings to produce a booming or drumming sound. I've flushed a couple of ruffed grouse on a late December trip to Hood Canal. However, finding 12 ``drummers'' at this time of year could be as difficult as spotting Santa and his airborne reindeer.
I hope that chasing after the 12 birds of Christmas will encourage you to get out and do some birding during the holidays. And the next time you are asked to sing through each and every one of the 12 verses, remember it could be worse: There are nearly 10,000 species of birds out there to sing about.
Much of this column was excerpted from Frances Wood's book,''Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West,'' available from Fulcrum Publishing at www.fulcrumbooks.com and in local bookstores.