Species of the Twelve Days of Christmas

Since “The Twelve Days of Christmas” originated in England, it should be a safe assumption that the creatures named in it are those found in England. So, I have decided to correlate the song to iNat.

  1. A partridge in a pear tree. The only partridge originally native in England is the Gray Partridge. The pear tree is probably the Common Pear, since that is the one commonly cultivated for fruit.

  2. Two turtledoves. The European turtledove occurs in several subspecies, of which the one found in most of Europe and part of Britain is the Northern Turtledove.

  3. Three French hens. Whatever breed a “French” hen was, it would have been the same species as every other breed of Domestic Chicken. One source suggests that the “French” reference might be a word-association pun, genus Gallus with the adjective Gallic.

  4. Four calling birds. Many passeriform birds have distinct songs, often erroneously called “bird calls” by laypersons; but in researching this, it is hard to escape the seeming consensus of sources saying that it was originally “colly birds,” meaning coal-black birds, and thus must mean the Western European Blackbird.

  5. Five golden rings. I cannot correlate that with iNaturalist, since gold is a mineral and hence does not even qualify as “State of Matter Life.”

  6. Six geese a-laying. This would have likely been the Domestic Greylag Goose, although not necessarily, because the Domestic Swan Goose had reached Europe by the 1730s, and thus made possible the Domestic Greylag X Swan Goose.

  7. Seven swans a-swimming. Probably the Mute Swan, since that is the year-round resident of the latitudes of Britain, and has also been domesticated. However, since Christmas is in winter, the Whooper Swan and Bewick’s Swan migrate to those latitudes.

  8. Eight maids a-milking. They were probably milking Domestic Cattle, although there is a history of milking Domestic Goats as well.

  9. Nine ladies dancing,

  10. ten lords a-leaping,

  11. eleven pipers piping,

  12. twelve drummers drumming. Since all of these are observations of Human, they will be relegated to casual and not further elaborated.


Ladies can implicitly refer to the common names for Vanessa spp.


When I was a child we always sang no.4 as ‘Colly Birds’ and when I was older and first heard people singing ‘calling birds’ I assumed they were making a mistake. I once asked an elderly neighbour what a Colly Bird was and was told it was the Blackbird.


Yes, I recently read that the original lyrics were “colly” birds (colly referring to coal, blackbirds).

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Anyone care to venture what species of pipers were piping?


For #5, Cordulegaster dragonflies are called Goldenrings in England (Spiketails in the U.S.). C. boltonii works for England.


Sandpipers? Scolopacidae

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It is too bad that the song does not have nine Reindeer prancing, ten Polar Bears a-roaring, eleven Snowy Owls who-ing, and twelve Iceland Sheep clashing. I would add thirteen Penguins a-sliding, but Penguins are not found in the Arctic Region, and it the original song does not have “thirteen”. For some reason, I always think of Penguins during Christmas…It must be because I have watched Happy Feet too many times during the Holidays.


Thanks for reminding me what the actual lyrics are! I heard the song on the radio several times last Christmas and was confused by hearing the first line as “A paltry juniper tree”.

Oh, yes, that could be a whole other discussion (although not really an iNat-related one): what song lyrics actually say vs. what we hear them say. I have been surprised a few times when looking up song lyrics.

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