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Birds of The Twelve Days of Christmas

It's the season of carols and festive decorations, but have you ever considered that one of the most beloved yuletide classics might be referring indirectly to pest infestations? For centuries, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" has been sung to spread holiday cheer. Half of the gifts from the narrator's "true love" are birds, and by the end of the tune, the recipient has 23 of them! These birds were likely intended to be cooked and eaten, but we assume they were alive when gifted. That's a whole lot of feathers, droppings, and noise!

We don't want to look a gift goose in the mouth, but are these feathered friends a pest infestation in the making? Let's explore the birds mentioned in this beloved holiday classic and determine if they're capable of wreaking havoc on your home or garden as pests:

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

If you’ve never known what a partridge is outside of this song or The Partridge Family, it may be because this bird is not found naturally in the United States, although several species have now been introduced to the Americas. You’re also unlikely to see it in a pear tree, as found in the song – these are ground-nesting birds. This medium-sized game bird is similar to the smaller quail and larger pheasant.


The narrator's true love likely could have stopped here - this is not a bad gift! Like other game birds, partridges were commonly roasted and eaten in medieval times. Perhaps they pair well with pears.

Two Turtle Doves

Like all doves, these are members of the pigeon family. There are several differences between the doves and common pigeons, mainly in size - doves are much more diminutive. Some would say, however, that the most significant difference is in how we perceive them. Which species is released during wedding ceremonies, and which is called "rats with wings"?


Turtle doves are unlikely to be a problem for the gift recipient, especially just the two of them. However, if these two birds breed together, there may be trouble.

Three French Hens

Who doesn't love chicken? (Sorry, vegans and vegetarians.) Not only can they lay eggs nearly every day, but with proper care, a hen can live for up to five years! In some cases, such as the Silkie chicken, their feathers can actually feel as soft as silk. These three hens could be a welcome gift for an aspiring farmer, or anyone who's just a big fan of eggs.


They're chickens! Unless you're bothered by potential pecking, you're good. And since they're all hens, they won't be breeding little chicks and overwhelming your coop. Free eggs! A win all around.

Four "Calling" Birds

This is where things get hazy: we may sing "calling birds", in reference to a songbird, but historians believe that the original lyrics reference "colly birds". The word "colly" is an outdated term for soot-black coloring, so we can reasonably assume that on the fourth day, this true love was gifting blackbirds.


If these are indeed blackbirds, they're fine in small numbers. They could be a bother to farmers and gardeners, as they love feeding on seeds and crops. Thankfully, blackbirds are small enough to keep in a cage - unlike the next birds on our list.

Six Geese A-Laying

After taking a break from birds to gift the narrator something normal ("five golden rings"), the true love returns to avians with a vengeance, bringing in one of the most notorious members of the bird world: geese. Worse, "a-laying" seems to imply laying eggs and nesting. They may or may not be fertilized, but that room for error leaves us room to worry.


Even one goose is a high-risk gift, but six? Geese are famously territorial and unafraid of human confrontation, hissing and honking and even attacking with their beaks and wings. This protectiveness is amplified during nesting season, and if these geese are a-laying hatchable eggs, our Christmas carol narrator is in for a territory war. That's not to mention their feathers and droppings coating every field they enter. And all the noise they make! If anything, gifting a goose should be a prank - unless you're cooking it, unfortunately for the goose. (But don't worry - we've got some solutions if you're plagued by any number of geese!)

Seven Swans A-Swimming

Swans are the more romanticized cousin of geese. They are larger, and spend more time in water than on land. They're viewed as graceful and serene - would "Swan Lake" have been a famous ballet were it about geese? Couples enjoy riding swan boats, everybody loves when two swans face each other and their neck shapes appear to form two halves of a heart. Swans must have a better PR team, because they're just as aggressive as geese - if not more.


These swans are a-swimming, not a-laying, so our narrator may be safe from their territorial nature. But are they welcome in the waters they occupy? With the potential to contaminate waters with their droppings and feathers, you may want pond netting if this is an unwelcome gift.


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