Carol of the birds has Arkansas connections


Making Ripples

Ever wondered why there are so many birds in the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” What species is the song referencing? Can we see those birds in Arkansas? According to Michigan State University’s Pamela Rasmussen, a prominent ornithologist, the birds in the song are probably the red-legged partridge, European turtledoves, chickens, Eurasian blackbirds, greylag geese and mute swans.

The birds are tough to pin down to species, because there are many different versions of the song that originated as a chant and spread to various parts of Europe. Each version uses different birds (and other references) to some degree. If you ever have time and some eggnog, look up the various versions for a laugh!

But if we go with Rasmussen’s account, we can learn about the birds from the English version of the song most familiar to those in the United States. The red-legged partridge is not native to England; it was introduced before the carol was written. It can’t be found in Arkansas but is a relative of our northern bobwhite quail, which bears some family resemblance.

European turtledoves, predictably, are also found in Europe. But in Arkansas we’ve got plenty of doves, including the mourning dove, which is fairly common. Turtledoves are a symbol of love, and often given as a gift, with each partner keeping one of the doves in a pair. Somehow, though, humans don’t love them enough: due to overhunting and habitat loss, their population has declined so severely that they may go the way of the passenger pigeon once common in the United States but now extinct.

Chickens are seen as less romantic, even if you call them French hens. Yet, they are very intelligent and shouldn’t be underestimated. The other livestock referenced in the song includes geese and swans, both of which we have here. Greylag geese are widespread in England. Arkansas has several different kinds of geese, including domestic geese found on farms and the Canada goose, which is a familiar migrant. The mute swans in the song are found in both Europe and the United States, but in Michigan, they’re considered an invasive species. Bonus fact: They’re not actually mute, just quieter, but the noise of their wings is distinct and unique to this species.

The “calling birds” reference is too vague to say with confidence. But Rasmussen suggests that it may be referring to Eurasian blackbirds, which aren’t found here. We do, however, have red-winged blackbirds that overwinter in large flocks that roost together. Blackbirds can’t see well at night and don’t fly at night unless they’re frightened by explosions, which made 4,000 or 5,000 of them commit mass suicide over Beebe, Ark., on New Year’s Eve in 2011 when a large roost was in the area. If it had been summer, daytime or a smaller flock, the fatalities wouldn’t have been so great. Firework-related bird deaths aren’t unique to blackbirds and happen in smaller numbers in many places. If you’d like to make a difference for these beautiful birds, don’t shoot off fireworks at night on New Year’s Eve.

Amanda Bancroft is a writer, artist, and naturalist living in an off-grid tiny house on Kessler Mountain. She and her husband Ryan blog about their adventures and offer tips to those wanting to make a difference at

Categories: Making Ripples