The Twelve Birds of Christmas

Darin Smith

The carol ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ mentions numerous different birds. Here’s what some of those feathered friends are up to at this time of year!

A partridge

There are two types of partridge found in Britain today, the grey partridge which is native and the red-legged which has been introduced for shooting. The grey partridge was commonly found on farmland across the country but is sadly now red listed and still in decline. Increased pesticide use and habitat loss are thought to be the main causes of the decline, but more wildlife friendly farming methods are helping the partridge recover in some areas. As a bird of grasslands, they are also fairly unlikely to ever be found in pear trees, but they may well eat a pear if they came across one, favouring seeds and insects in their diet.

grey partridge

Darin Smith

Turtle doves

Turtle doves are currently in sub-Saharan Africa, where they will spend the winter. These are another farmland bird that have seen huge declines due mainly to charges in farmland. Their migration is also a dangerous one, passing through multiple countries in the Mediterranean where thousands are still shot every year and flying through the extreme conditions of the Sahara desert. Recently, rewilding projects seem to have had the most success in helping these doves, providing mixed habitat with plenty of food for them. They will be back in this country from May.

Turtle dove

 Dawn Monrose

Calling birds?

The line four calling birds was originally colley birds – or blackbirds. You might have a pair of blackbirds, the female a plainer brown in comparison to the jet black of the male, resident in your garden. In autumn and winter they may venture further afield as natural food, such as fallen fruit and berries, become more abundant. Numbers in Britain increase in winter as migrants from the continent avoid freezing temperatures. Once spring arrives blackbirds will gradually head back to their breeding territories in parks and gardens.

Blackbird with Holly Berry, © Tim Withall

Blackbird with Holly Berry,© Tim Withall

Swans and geese

Both swans and geese are two groups whose numbers are boosted in winter as some species migrate south, adding to resident populations. Of course, none of these species will be laying eggs in the wild at the moment but they may be on the water. They will spend the cold months feeding on wetlands, farm fields and mudflats sometimes in flocks of thousands.

Adult dark-bellied Brent goose

© Jason Crook

Bonus bird

One for the pub quiz, it is thought that the five gold rings actually refer to goldfinches, from their old name ‘goldspinks’.


Goldfinch © Mathilde Chanvin