Saturday, December 24, 2016

Could you Bird the 12 Days of Christmas?

It's always been an interesting quirk to me that the 12 Days of Christmas (abbreviated hereafter as Xmas, in line with personal tradition) is so bird-heavy. I mean, aside from those rings (the real thing everyone wants), it's all birds or weird performers. I don't know how I would even deal with eleven pipers piping at me. But anyway, I think it's a fairly short leap from that realization to wondering how likely it is to actually see all those birds oneself. At least for birders, who are naturally competitive and achievement-oriented types. So could you or I get all those birds? And if so, where? Could we do it on Xmas? We're going to attempt to answer that question today. First, let's define our birds.

Seven Swans a Swimming

We don't have a lot to work with here as far as identifying the swans, since all we know about them is that they're swimming, which all swans do. Fortunately, there are basically only 6 types of swans: Black, Black-necked, Mute, Trumpeter, Whooper, and Tundra. Swans can live most places, but they aren't generally equatorial birds, meaning we can eliminate the most of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Central America. Furthermore, you are unlikely to be able to complete the Xmas birding challenge if you are in Africa. We've made some progress, but that's still a lot of ground to cover.

Six Geese a Laying

These are probably domestic Geese, since they are given the designation of 'laying'. Unfortunately, this means they could be almost anywhere. Fortunately, this means it should be pretty easy to find 6 of them. While I will generally try to only count birds in their native habitat, even this degree of nit-picking will not help up, since Geese occur naturally almost everywhere. The consensus best goose for laying is the China Goose, so maybe we're talking about Asia here. Let's keep going.

Four Cally Birds

Yes, I said 'cally birds'. I am assured by multiple internet sources that these aren't 'calling' birds as I have always assumed. And we might finally have our big break in the case, since a Cally Bird is unambiguously an anachronistic name for a member of the Thrush family called (ironically) the Common Blackbird. Coal-y bird. Get it? Anyway, they're native to most of Europe and have a sizable population in Southeast Australia and New Zealand. Now we're getting somewhere!

Three French Hens

Sigh, another domestic bird.. You can find domestic female chickens that originated in France anywhere in the world, as evidenced by this handy list of French Chicken Breeds. But let me make a supposition here. Would you really call it a French Hen if you were in France? Like, in that case, it would just be a Hen, right? Not the strongest evidence, but it could be a tie-breaker.

Two Turtle Doves

pictured above: Not a Turtle Dove (a Collared Dove)
Turtle Doves. Finally, someone has something specific to say. While Turtle Dove can sometimes refer to the whole family of Collared Doves, there's not a reason to be broad when what we want is specificity. There are 4 birds with Turtle Dove in their name, and fortunately 3 of them are ruled out by their ranges. Our also-rans, by the way, are the Oriental Turtle Dove (most of Asia), Dusky Turtle Dove and Adamawa Turtle Dove (both African). The one we're looking for is the European Turtle Dove. They live throughout Europe in fairly high numbers, as long as you don't go too far north.

A Partridge

Oh god, there are 56 types of partridge. They live on grasslands throughout Eurasia, and I've been able to verify that you're going to find partridges just about anywhere we've already got on our shortlist. Between the Grey and Red-legged varieties, you'll be able to find a partridge anywhere in Europe.

The Pear Tree

Finding the partridge in a pear tree might be a little more difficult, but pears grow just about everywhere we're already considering. If you really want to play the odds though, you'll want to go to Spain, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, or Austria. These are the big pear-producing regions of

So could you bird all the birds in the 12 Days of Xmas? It seems like you definitely could, as long as you live in Central Europe (or even parts of Turkey). However, given that the origin of this Xmas carol is 1780's England and France, we can confirm that you could do this birding challenge in the song's country of origin. If you really want to maximize your odds, we can combine our pear data with our bird data, and come to the conclusion that Belgium is your best bet. Big shout-outs to the IUCN Red List website for its unparalleled animal range data. Merry Xmas everyone, and may all your presents be bird-related again.

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