Bird Watcher's General Store

The Twelve Days of Christmas Explained
Is it Calling, Collie or Colly Birds?
12/24/10


Dear Bird Folks,

I’m sure you have had this question before, but every year my family argues over the lyrics of the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. The line of contention is the one about the “four calling birds.” Some members of the family insist that the line should be “four collie birds.” We have a house filled with bird books and there are no collie birds in any of them, yet the fight continues. This year we’ve all agreed to let you decide who is right. Is it calling or collie? What say you?

– Donna, Waltham, MA

Nice, Donna,

I like that your family fights about a centuries old Christmas song. My family usually argues over something more emotionally charged, like which adult has to eat at the kids’ table. Talk about an ugly battle. Actually, I pretend I don’t want to sit there but the truth is it’s my favorite place to sit. I can eat with both elbows on the table, use my sleeve for a napkin and not have to listen to the adults talk about their recent doctor appointments. The other good thing about sitting at the kids’ table is that, according to a family bylaw, whoever sits there doesn’t have to give Aunt Florence a ride home. Aunt Florence is fine, but what we hate is that she always makes us play with her one-eyed cat, “Stinky.” No cat has ever had a more appropriate name. This cat may only have one eye, but it makes the rest of us wish we didn’t have a nose.

I’ve never understood the affection for The Twelve Days of Christmas. I mean, with exception of the five gold rings, does anybody really want any of that stuff? Try handing your true love three French hens and see what happens to you. I like birds, but even I wouldn’t want three hens, French or otherwise. They are way too messy. Who needs that? I have enough work to do just cleaning up around the kids’ table, especially after I’ve eaten there. And can you imagine the complaints from your neighbors if you filled your house with twelve drummers, and they were all drumming? How about eleven pipers? Who wants to hear anybody “piping”? Nine ladies dancing doesn’t sound too bad, but ten lords a-leaping seems kind of sissy-ish to me.

About calling vs. collie birds: I hate to spoil the holiday but both are wrong. The original phrase is “colly birds,” not calling or collie. Having a calling bird would be awful. As anyone who has a pet parrot or peacock can tell you, the constant sound of any bird calling gets old very quickly. Collie bird is also wrong. You can look through all the books you want and you won’t find a single bird that looks like a collie. Can you imagine a tiny Lassie flying around your head chirping every time Timmy falls in the well?

Why colly birds? Colly means grimy or sooty, like a chimney sweep. The colly birds in this case are simply blackbirds. Yes, blackbirds. Once again, the true love is stuck with another lousy gift. However, the blackbirds in this case are not the same blackbirds that many folks around here complain about. Even this song is not suggesting giving someone a pile of grackles or Red-winged Blackbirds for Christmas. These colly birds are European blackbirds, which are not really blackbirds. They are thrushes. Confused? Now you know why no one has ever tried to explain this before. Thanks for making me be the one who has to do it.

A few years ago my wife and I took trip to England. While my wife was maxing out her credit card at Harrods, I was off looking for birds. One bird in particular caught my attention. It was black like a crow, but much smaller. It didn’t behave like a crow either. It was on the lawn of a local park, running in short bursts and stopping every few feet to dig for worms. Its body shape and behavior reminded me of our American Robin. It even had a bright yellow bill, just like a robin does. A quick check of my book told me that this black robin-looking bird is simply called “Blackbird.” The reason it looked and behaved like our robin is because it is related to our robin. Both are in the thrush family. In an odd twist, England has a robin but their robin is not at all related to our robin, while none of our blackbirds are related to their Blackbird. How about that? (I said it was “odd,” not interesting.)

Like our robin and our blackbirds, this Blackbird (also called Common Blackbird and European Blackbird) is equally at home in wilderness locations as well as parks and backyards. Also, like our birds, their population is very large, probably consisting of over 100 million birds. They breed throughout much of Europe and part of Asia, and have been introduced into New Zealand and Australia.

I hope this puts an end to your family’s annual feud, Donna. A colly bird is just another name for the European Blackbird, even though it really is a thrush. But no matter what kind of bird it is, it’s still a lousy Christmas gift to receive from your true love. The only gift that would be lousier would be a one-eyed cat from my Aunt Florence. That would really stink. Literally.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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