Five Fun Facts About The Real Birds Of ‘The Twelve Days Of Christmas’ Fame – Forbes

Some interesting (non-election and non-political) things to talk about with your relatives over the holidays

Once again, Christmas is charging down upon us all like a rampaging rhinoceros. This year is especially challenging for me because I am in the process of relocating to Norway. At this moment — and because the movers could not reschedule less than 48 hours before their appearance — almost all of my possessions are in Norway, whilst I remain in my dark, empty apartment with my parrots and songbirds, collecting dust bunnies and waiting for the avian influenza epidemic to clear up. Although my birds are all healthy, this epidemic has been ravaging parts of the EU for weeks. Only a couple days before my scheduled departure for Norway, it became severe enough that the authorities in Germany (where I live) closed down all movement of birds out of the country.

So instead of preparing to create snow angels in meter-deep snow and to watch the Northern Lights on Christmas Eve from the windows of my house in Norway, my thoughts have turned to birds. This gives me the opportunity to share five fun facts about each of the birds mentioned in the popular Christmas carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which seems appropriate since this is my follow-up on last year’s story — the first piece I ever published on FORBES.

A partridge in a pear tree

Red-legged Partridge, Alectoris rufa. Image: Pierre Dalous/CC BY-SA 3.0.

Red-legged partridge, Alectoris rufa. (Credit: Pierre Dalous / CC BY-SA 3.0.)

  1. Partridges are members of the pheasant family, and there are 45 formally recognized species of partridges in the world
  2. Although these highly sedentary birds are native to the grasslands, and stony and sandy regions of the Old World, several species have been introduced to the New World, where they are now widespread on prairies, farmlands and other open spaces
  3. Several genera of partridges use Perdix (or some modification of Perdix) as part of their scientific name. This name was chosen to honor Perdix, who was thrown off a tower by his jealous uncle, Daedalus, but was saved from certain death by his mother, who changed him into a partridge. The name Perdix also recognizes the fact that partridges are terrestrial birds that rarely, if ever, perch in trees or on other high places
  4. The red-legged partridge, Alectoris rufa, which is likely the species referred to in the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” have an unusual breeding behavior: The female partridge produces two clutches of 10-16 eggs in two separate nests, one of which is incubated by the male whilst she incubates the other
  5. After breeding season has ended, several family groups will band together in flocks known as “coveys.” Young of the season remain with their parents until the following spring when the birds pair up and begin nesting

Two turtle-doves

Turtle Dove, Streptopelia turtur, in Spain. (Credit: Miguel González Novo / CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Turtle Dove, Streptopelia turtur, in Spain. (Credit: Miguel González Novo / CC BY-SA 2.0.)

  1. There are approximately 310 species of pigeons and doves throughout the world
  2. Pigeons and doves are found everywhere on Earth (even on the remotest islands of the Pacific Ocean), except Antarctica and the Arctic, and the Sahara Desert
  3. When breeding, both male and female pigeons and doves care for the young. When the squabs (chicks) first hatch, both parents secrete a highly nutritious substance from the lining of their crops known as “crop milk” or “pigeon milk”. This substance is fed to the squabs for the first week or so of life, and as the squabs mature, the crop milk is diluted with foods that the adult birds have eaten. Unlike mammalian milk, which is liquid, crop milk is a suspension that resembles cottage cheese. It is made up of protein-rich and fat-rich cells that proliferate and detach from the lining of the crop (ref). It also contains anti-oxidants, immune-enhancing factors and beneficial bacteria (ref). Prolactin, the hormone that triggers lactation in mammals, also causes pigeons to produce crop milk (ref)
  4. Two of the most famous extinctions in the world happened to pigeon species. One famous extinction was the island-dwelling dodo, Raphus cucullatus. Dodos were very large flightless pigeons that lived on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, but were driven to extinction in the 16th century, less than 100 years after people first became aware of their existence. The other famous extinction was the passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, which was once the most abundant bird on Earth, numbering into the billions. Passenger pigeons became extinct when the last representative of the species, Martha, died in the Cinncinnati Zoo in 1914 — roughly 100 years after European settlers to North America first came into contact with them
  5. According to Operation TurtleDove, the European turtle dove, Streptopelia turtur, which is the species mentioned in the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” is vulnerable to global extinction. Since 1995, their population has plummeted by 91% in the UK and by 78% across Europe since 1980. If this rate of decline continues, extinction throughout the UK within a decade is a real possibility, which could then be followed by this bird’s extinction in Europe

Three French hens

Wild adult female red Junglefowl, Gallus gallus, Thailand. Image: JJ Harrison/CC BY-SA 3.0.

Wild adult female red Junglefowl, Gallus gallus, Thailand. Image: JJ Harrison/CC BY-SA 3.0.

  1. Domesticated chickens, Gallus gallus domesticus, are a subspecies of the red junglefowl, Gallus gallus, a member of the Pheasant family that lives in tropical Asia. The domestic chicken is now the most common and widespread of all domestic animals because it is easy to keep and is a very productive source of both meat and eggs (ref)
  2. Chickens are more closely related to dinosaurs than any other bird species. Genetic studies have found that chickens have experienced fewer major genomic changes than other birds as they evolved from their feathered dinosaur ancestors eradicated in the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event (ref)
  3. Unlike most birds, which only lay a certain number of eggs in each breeding season, chickens are known as “indeterminate layers”, meaning that hens will lay eggs to replace those that have been removed from their nest. For this reason, in ancient Egypt, chickens were known as the “bird that gives birth every day”
  4. Red junglefowl were domesticated at least 7400 years ago (ref). It is estimated that there are more than 19 billion domestic chickens alive on Earth, so it might surprise you to learn that their wild ancestor is in danger of extinction — or perhaps not: throughout their range, the red junglefowl is in danger of being hybridized out of existence by free-roaming domestic chickens that commingle with them
  5. And since it’s an avian influenza epidemic that’s postponing my relocation to Norway by one month (hopefully it’s only a one month postponement!), I thought I’d mention that chickens are probably the number one reason we have avian influenza all over the place. But it really isn’t their fault: domestic chickens are vectors for avian influenza due to the way that people keep them. As any epidemiologist will tell you, keeping hundreds of thousands of stressed-out creatures crammed into tiny cages in mega-farms provides a superb incubator for deadly disease organisms. (And really, this is a scenario that we’ve had lots of experience with!) Basically, this situation favors highly contagious and increasingly lethal microbes, and is particularly dangerous when the pathogen is airborne, like influenza

Four calling birds

Adult male common blackbird, Turdus merula. (Credit: Sannse / CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Adult male common blackbird, Turdus merula. (Credit: Sannse / CC BY-SA 3.0.)

  1. The “four calling birds” (“four colly birds”) mentioned in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are probably the common blackbird, Turdus merula, also known as the Eurasian blackbird to distinguish it from the New World blackbirds and other local species. The common blackbird is a true thrush, which is a large family of talented songbirds with a worldwide distribution
  2. The much-beloved American robin, T. migratorius, is a close relative to the common blackbird, and their songs are very similar, too
  3. In Act 3 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the blackbird was described as “The Woosell cocke, so blacke of hew, With Orenge-tawny bill.” Although “blackbird” is now its common name, “ouzel” is preserved as the name of the closely related ring ouzel, Turdus torquatus, and also is often used for the water ouzel, an unrelated but similar white-throated dipper, Cinclus cinclus
  4. Common blackbirds can sleep with half their brain whilst the other half is awake (ref). This is known as unihemispheric slow-wave sleep. Recorded in most bird species, this neat little trick provides birds with the ability to remain alert and active for long periods of time whilst still getting enough sleep
  5. Interestingly, despite its black plumage, the common blackbird is not associated with bad luck — is this due to its cheery song?

Six geese a-laying

Greylag goose, Anser anser, in St James's Park, London, England. Image: Diliff/CC BY-SA 3.0.

Greylag goose, Anser anser, in St James’s Park, London, England. (Credit: Diliff/CC BY-SA 3.0.)

  1. The goose is a domesticated form of the greylag goose, Anser anser, or the swan goose, Anser cygnoides. The goose was domesticated by 1360 BC for meat, eggs and down feathers
  2. Geese are highly territorial, aggressive and noisy during the breeding season. Domestic geese inherited these traits from their wild progenitors, and since they are nonmigratory, they exhibit these behaviors throughout the year, which makes them superb watchdogs. These attributes are even noted in ancient Roman legends: one of which tells of a flock of geese kept on Rome’s Capitoline Hill that alerted Marcus Manlius Capitolinus to the impending Gallic attack in 390 BC
  3. Although wild greylag geese can produce between 5-12 eggs annually, a domestic goose will produce as many as 50 eggs in a year
  4. The greylag goose gave Konrad Lorenz his Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1973. This prize, which was shared with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch, is the only time that the study of animal behavior (ethology) was rewarded with such a prestigious award
  5. All geese are herbivorous, but I was especially excited to learn that a particular breed of domestic goose, the Chinese white goose, is known to have a voracious appetite for weeds whilst leaving many crops, particularly cotton, corn and strawberries, untouched. This character inspired a common (although, sadly, vanishing) service where a goose farmer would rent out “weeder geese” to remove weeds from crops without the need for costly chemicals (ref & ref). Already, I am making plans to get some of these geese for the garden that I will plant in Norway

Seven swans a-swimming

A pair of mute swans courting on a pond in Zelienople, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

  1. Although there are six or seven species of swans worldwide, the “seven swans a-swimming” mentioned in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are mute swans, Cygnus olor, which are found throughout Europe and much of Asia
  2. All unmarked mute swans on open water in Britain formally belong to the Crown. So every year during the third week of July, when swans are moulting and cannot fly, all swans are captured, ringed (banded), their health is assessed and then they are released (ref). Originally, I planned to tag along on this year’s “swan upping” census and share that with you, but I became busy with another task, so my visit was postponed until next summer
  3. Not all swans are white. Australia is home to the black swan, Cygnus atratus, a large and nomadic species, and there is the handsome black-necked swan, Cygnus melancoryphus, which is the largest waterfowl in South America. I think it’s interesting to note that the back-necked swan’s closest relatives live far away; the mute swan lives in Europe whilst the black swan is found in Australia
  4. It’s estimated that 25% of all black swan pairs are homosexual, comprising mostly male birds (ref). These swans still raise young, either by stealing the nest from a pair of birds, or by forming a temporary threesome with a female and then chasing her away after she has completed her clutch
  5. Swans are the largest of all waterfowl, and are amongst the largest and heaviest flying birds in the world


Meagan J Gillespie, Volker R Haring, Kenneth A McColl, Paul Monaghan, John A Donald, Kevin R Nicholas, Robert J Moore and Tamsyn M Crowley (2011). Histological and global gene expression analysis of the ‘lactating’ pigeon crop, BMC Genomics, 12:452 | doi:10.1186/1471-2164-12-452

Meagan J. Gillespie, Dragana Stanley, Honglei Chen, John A. Donald, Kevin R. Nicholas, Robert J. Moore, and Tamsyn M. Crowley (2012). Functional Similarities between Pigeon ‘Milk’ and Mammalian Milk: Induction of Immune Gene Expression and Modification of the Microbiota, PLoS ONE, 7(10):e48363 | doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048363

Michael N Romanov, Marta Farré, Pamela E Lithgow, Katie E Fowler, Benjamin M Skinner, Rebecca O’Connor, Gothami Fonseka, Niclas Backström, Yoichi Matsuda, Chizuko Nishida, Peter Houde, Erich D Jarvis, Hans Ellegren, David W Burt, Denis M Larkin and Darren K Griffin (2014). Reconstruction of gross avian genome structure, organization and evolution suggests that the chicken lineage most closely resembles the dinosaur avian ancestor, BMC Genomics, 15:1060 | doi:10.1186/1471-2164-15-1060

Alice A. Storey, J. Stephen Athens, David Bryant, Mike Carson, Kitty Emery, Susan deFrance, Charles Higham, Leon Huynen, Michiko Intoh, Sharyn Jones, Patrick V. Kirch, Thegn Ladefoged, Patrick McCoy, Arturo Morales-Muñiz, Daniel Quiroz, Elizabeth Reitz, Judith Robins, Richard Walter, and Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith (2012). Investigating the Global Dispersal of Chickens in Prehistory Using Ancient Mitochondrial DNA Signatures, PLoS ONE, 7(7):e39171 | doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0039171

Rattenbourg, Neils C., Amlaner, C. J., and Lima, S.L. (2000). Behavioral, neurophysiological and evolutionary perspectives on unihemispheric sleep, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 24(8):817–842 | doi:10.1016/S0149-7634(00)00039-7

Charles Hillinger. Honk If You Want to Rent a Real Weed Eater, Los Angeles Times 11 March 1986 [Retrieved 23 December 2016]

Glenn Geiger and Harold Biellier. Weeding With Geese, University of Missouri Extension, 1993 [Retrieved 23 December 2016]

The Royal Windsor website. Swan Upping. [Retrieved 23 December 2016]

LW Braithwaite (1981). Ecological Studies of the Black Swan III. Behaviour and Social Organisation, Australian Wildlife Research, 8(1):135-146 | doi:10.1071/WR9810135

5 Fun Facts About The Real Birds Of ‘The 12 Days Of Christmas’ | @GrrlScientist


Write a Reply or Comment:

Your email address will not be published.*