ECOVIEWS: How many partridges do you need?

  • Posted: Sunday, December 22, 2013 8:32 a.m.

As I have noted before, the most ecologically relevant song of the Christmas season is the one that starts off with a partridge in a pear tree as the first of many gifts. According to my calculations, by the 12th day of Christmas someone's true love had delivered more geese and swans than any other bird. In fact, 42 of each ended up under new ownership, compared to only 12 partridges and 22 turtledoves.

At 30 and 36, respectively, French hens and calling birds were closer in numbers to the geese and swans but still fell short. I am almost certainly not the only person to have made these Christmas bird counts, so if I got them wrong, please let me know.

What does this have to do with ecology? Anything involving an animal or plant has something to do with the environment. As this is the season for giving, my gift to readers is information about some ecological aspects related to this song.

For starters, what is a swan goose, and is it suitable for gift giving? What's another name for an ugly duckling? And does anyone really know what a calling bird is?

One species that could create a dilemma for someone giving geese and swans to a true love is the so-called swan goose, which is genetically related to both but not enough so to be classified as one or the other. Do you give them as geese on the sixth day or swans on the seventh? This isn't likely to affect U.S. gift givers as the species is rare throughout most of its native range from Mongolia to Korea.

All swans and geese belong to the same family of mostly migratory waterfowl. For your gift on the sixth day of Christmas, you can select from more than a dozen kinds of geese found worldwide. One that would not be suitable for gifting is the Hawaiian goose, or nene. The Hawaiian state bird is on the federal endangered species list.

To most Americans a swan is a big white bird that looks regal gliding around on a lake, and indeed most of the world's half dozen or so swan types are all white or mostly so. The species native to Australia, however, is black with a bright red bill.

I doubt that seven black swans have ever been given to anyone on the seventh day of Christmas. As with many domesticated animals, the males, females, and babies have different names. A male swan is a cob; a female, a pen. The babies, aka ugly ducklings, are called cygnets.

Some sources suggest that the five gold rings refer to rings on a pheasant's neck, which would make the first seven gifts avian related. But the idea (however logical it might be) isn't likely to catch on at this late date, so I'm not including ring-necked pheasants in this Christmas bird count.

The partridge and the French hen are related to quail and pheasant. They can be pretty; they produce eggs that are edible; and they themselves are edible. Clearly, good gifts. Turtledoves, a type of migratory pigeon found from Europe to Africa, would be a poor gift choice because their numbers have declined considerably in recent years. “Calling bird” is apparently a corruption of “colly bird.” Colly means “black or sooty,” so the fourth day's gift would be blackbirds. Since they can be “baked in a pie,” colly birds might be a nice gift.

In the song's final Christmas bird count, the record for highest number should probably go to the geese.

All 42 of them were a-laying and would presumably soon have goslings running around, whereas the 42 swans were simply a-swimming, with no ugly ducklings expected.

What someone did on the twelfth day of Christmas with 184 mostly big birds running around their house (or sitting in pear trees), I can only imagine. Maybe the 48 maids that I calculate were present, stopped a-milking and started a-mopping.

Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Send environmental questions to ecoviews@gmail.com.

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