Opinion: Don’t give a bird for a Christmas present

There are only three kinds of birds in the world: little brown birds, big brown birds and medium-size brown birds. So declared a former colleague who studied mammals, most of which are little brown rodents. He’d grouse that the holiday season had become the Adoration of the Aves. It starts in November with Thanksgiving and a turkey, a large brown bird. Ditto Christmas dinner a few weeks later, followed by the incessant drone of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” a 1780 carol imported from England with its daily dose of brown birds. Too bad it’s an ornithological whopper.

On day one, your true love supposedly sends you a partridge in a pear tree, meaning the English European Partridge. Not possible. This bird nests in brushwood or long grass, not in trees, pear or otherwise.

Day two brings the English Turtle Dove, also not possible. The bird has the good sense not to overwinter in England, and so escapes being plucked, gift wrapped and sent to you for Christmas.

French hens on day three means Gallus, Latin for chicken. In 1599, in the first scientific monograph on the chicken, the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi tackled the conundrum of which came first: the chicken or the egg? Under the watchful eye of the Church, he answered, tactfully: “It is stated in the sacred books that the hen existed first. Both time and space prevent me from dwelling upon it.”

For the French, though, the egg always came first, being the evolutionary raw material behind sauces and soufflés. In 1872, France produced 8 billion eggs, of which 160 million were consumed in Paris alone and 60 million exported to England. Three French hens wouldn’t go far in America, a sentiment best captured by this early folk song from the Ozarks:

“Chicken run fast

Chicken run slow

Chicken run by the Methodist preacher

Chicken don’t run no mo.”

“Calling” birds on day four are actually “collie” birds, the luckless fowl that miners took down into the collieries (coal mines) to test for lethal levels of poisonous gases. If the bird sang, the mine passed muster. If it gagged and went under, well, it had gone to glory in the miner’s stead.

The “five golden rings” on day five originally meant five Ring-necked Pheasants, a species imported from China and Turkestan. Yes, there is a ring around the bird’s neck, but it’s white, not golden. Details, details. Anyway, sending pheasants instead of gold is less romantic but more affordable, which heeds the old adage that “love is an island surrounded by expenses.”

Day six originally featured capons, not geese. Traditionally, geese were eaten on Michaelmas Day, Sept. 29, when annual rents were due and when tenants gave their landlords a goose to remain in good stead. A 1577 ditty records this avian payola:

“At Christmas a capon,

At Michaelmas a goose,

And somewhat else at New Year’s tide,

For fear the lease flies loose.”

A capon at Christmas is fine, but “six capons a-laying” aren’t. Ergo, geese, in deference to biology.

Day seven brings seven swans a-swimming, but one English variant had seven swans a-singing. According to Greek legend, the soul of Apollo, the god of music, entered a swan, forever making swans sing beautifully just before they die. Well, so much for Greek legends. Swans neither sing beautifully nor sing at all. As the naturalist Oliver Goldsmith noted in 1830, “the tame swan is one of the most silent of all birds; and the wild one has a note extremely loud and disagreeable.” An ornithologist in Iceland in 1900 claimed that during the long, dark winter nights on the tundra he regularly heard the wild song of the Whistling Swan “drift sonorously across the terrain like the high, pleasant tones of a violin.” Icelanders will tell you that after you spend a few long, dark winter nights on the tundra, musk oxen begin to sound like Mozart.

By the 12th day of Christmas, courtesy of your English true love, you’re living in a squawking, honking aviary of 224 brown birds. But, if your true love were French, l’amour during Noël would mean a stomach unbuttoned. The 1866 French folk version of “A Partridge in a Pear Tree” serves up: one good stuffing without bones; two breasts of veal; three joints of beef; four pig trotters; five legs of mutton; six partridges with cabbage; seven spitted rabbits; eight plates of salad; nine dishes from the chapter house; 10 full casks of wine …

You get the idea.

— Leonard Krishtalka is a University of Kansas professor and director of KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum.


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