“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me...”

Is there a song that catalogs more birds than this beloved Christmas carol? From French hens to swans, the age-old classic, “12 Days of Christmas,” expresses a sentiment birdwatchers already hold: any opportunity for birding is the best holiday gift! In the spirit of the season, Wingscapes explores the ornithology of these well-known species (plus a few of our other favorite winter birds, too).

1. Grey Partridge

This small, chicken-like bird, also known as the Hungarian partridge, is native to Eurasia but now makes its home in agricultural grasslands along the United States–Canadian border. Gray partridge hens produce a clutch of up to 22 eggs—one of the largest clutches of any bird species—meaning you’ll usually find more than just one partridge in a pear tree.

2. Turtle Doves

Better known as mourning doves, these plump-bodied, long-tailed birds are often found perching on telephone wires. Male and female mourning doves work together to feed their babies “crop milk” or “pigeon milk” that’s secreted by their crop lining. These adult pairs tend to mate for life, which may be why the song’s composer reserved this bird for the second slot in the holiday countdown.    

3. French Hens

While the “French hen” referenced in this Christmas classic could be any chicken breed (as chickens are native to France), we chose the Faverolles chicken as our French hen. The primary identifier for these magnificent birds is the fluffy white muffs and beards that cover their faces. Sweet-natured and docile, the Faverolles chicken is now kept as a pet by many bird lovers.

4. Calling Birds

Although recent renditions refer to them as “calling birds,” the original version uses “colly birds”—a colloquial British term that means “black as coal”—to describe this bird. Therefore, the common blackbird is widely considered the lover’s intended gift. A large population of these birds resides in Great Britain, but they can be found as far east as China.

5. Ring-Necked Pheasants 

Instead of “five golden rings,” our list includes the ring-necked pheasant. The males’ bright copper and gold plumage makes it the perfect replacement. Brought from Asia to the United States and England in the 1880s, this popular game bird mostly lives along brushy, roadside areas.

6. Greylag Geese

A British Christmas carol requires a British bird. The Greylag goose perfectly fits the bill. Found in lowland areas year-round, these birds undergo molting for a month after breeding season—preventing their flight during this period of time. Therefore, the “lag” portion of its name results from its tendency to migrate later than other birds of its species.    

7. Mute Swans

These beautiful, long-necked birds surely made the song’s “true love” swoon. A native Eurasian species, the mute swan was introduced to the ponds of wealthy North American estates as a symbol of elegance and grace. Contrary to its name, this swan produces an aggressive hissing and clanking noise when fighting for its territory.    

8. Black-Billed Magpies

In place of “eight maids-a-milking,” we chose the black-billed magpie for its milky white belly. These social birds gather in large flocks to feed on carrion—a behavior noted by Lewis and Clark during their expedition west. But their most unusual behavior is their “funeral” ritual. Upon discovering a dead magpie, an alert is sent to other magpies.  A large flock surrounds the deceased bird for 10 to 15 minutes, and then flies off in silence.

9. Parotias

The parotia, “ballet dancing bird,” is the perfect choice to replace the Christmas carol’s “nine ladies dancing.” Male parotias learn their unique dance moves from their fathers who use this display to attract a mate. Their decorative, six-quill plumes are dramatic and dazzling. These birds of paradise aren’t native to the song’s country of origin, but you can spot them in New Guinea, a former British territory.

10. Snowy Owls

What bird embodies winter more than a snowy owl? This regal bird stands in for the song’s “10 lords-a-leaping.” During the summer months, snowy owls breed in Canada’s northern territories but relocate to the southern part of Canada and the northern half of the United States for the winter. Their thick feathers help them maintain a body temperature of 38 to 40° C, which protects them from the Arctic cold.     

11. Northern Cardinals

Their sweet morning whistles don’t make quite the same sound as the “11 pipers piping,” but we couldn’t leave this festive bird—which often appears on holiday cards and decorations—off our Christmas countdown. Unlike most female North American songbirds, the female Northern Cardinal sings a long, complex song. It’s a signal her male partner responds to with food for their offspring.   

12. Ruffed Grouse

This “drumming” bird keeps rhythm for the song’s “12 drummers drumming.” When displaying for females or defending its territory, the male ruffed grouse beats its wings in the air to create a drumming sound that scares off potential threats. Another interesting ruffed grouse fact: the bird’s toes grow projections that act as snowshoes in the winter months.       

Find the perfect holiday gift for your “true love.” Browse our extensive selection of birding gifts from Wingscapes.