Is it possible to see a partridge in a pear tree in North America? After all, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an English (or possibly French) folk song.
Yes, in certain locations. Two species of partridge have been introduced to this continent as game birds: the chukar, native to the Middle East and southern Asia; and the gray partridge, native to Eurasia—and most likely the very species presented, with love, in a fruit tree for 12 days straight to a long-forgotten English (or French) singer-songwriter.
In North America, the chukar is found from southern California to British Columbia, and east to Wyoming and Colorado, as well as in Hawaii. The gray partridge is found almost from coast to coast: from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to Prince Edward Island, especially along the Canada-U.S. border. It is most common in the northern Great Plains states and the Prairie Provinces.
Your best bet at finding a partridge in a pear tree would be in Montana or southern Alberta, although you might get lucky with that in northern Iowa, too. Partridges are closely related to quail, and six species of quail are native to this continent. If you can’t manage to find a chukar or a gray partridge, a northern bobwhite in a pear (or, if we’re aiming for totally native, black cherry) tree is not too far off the mark.
What about turtle-doves? European turtle-dove has been documented in North America on only two occasions. It is a migratory species that summers throughout Europe and the Middle East, and winters in southern Africa. Like partridges, it is considered a game species, and between two and four million European turtle-doves are shot annually in southern Europe.
Since turtle-doves are not likely to be found in the wild here, a fair substitute is the Eurasian collared-dove, which is in the same genus. This species was introduced from Europe, and its range and population have been expanding rapidly in the past several decades. It is found coast-to-coast, but just starting to populate in the Northeast. Give it another decade. If we want a native species in our Twelve Big Days of Christmas, though, find any native pigeon. Mourning dove will do.
French hen or even French chicken is not a real species, and an Internet search of the term turns up many restaurants and no birds. To find a genuine French hen requires a trans-Atlantic flight that lands at Charles De Gaulle Airport and a trip to a nearby egg farm.
The familiar farm birds we use for meat, eggs, and sometimes as pets here in North America are descendants of the red junglefowl, which is native to Southeast Asia. A feral population resides in the Florida Keys. The term “hen” refers to the female of other gallinaceous (chickenlike) birds that are native to North America, including turkey, grouse, quail, prairie-chicken, and ptarmigan, as well as partridge and pheasant. The most common, widespread, and abundant native substitute for a French hen would probably be a female wild turkey.
Four calling birds? That sounds easy enough—except that the original lyrics to the carol are “four colly birds.” What on Earth is that? “Colly” likely derives from “coal,” and means “black.” The species referred to in the song is probably the common blackbird, four-and-twenty of which can be baked in a pie.
On the fourth day of Christmas, give your true love four blackbirds. No problem! Here in North America, the Icterid (blackbird) family is represented by 23 species, including grackles, cowbirds, and of course, blackbirds, as well as a bunch that are not black: meadowlarks, and orioles. Red-winged blackbird seems to be the most ubiquitous Icterid in North America, so this one was easy.
Six geese-a-laying will be difficult in December, but in spring, Canada, cackling, snow, greater white-fronted, and Ross’s geese nest in and are native to North America, along with brant; a few other species are rare visitors; and domestic geese are often found among their wild cousins. Graylag goose is such a species, and it is this one that is most likely gifted in the Christmas carol. It is a Eurasian species quite common in England. For our North American version of the carol, let’s go with Canada goose.
At least in the East and Midwest, late fall has been exceptionally warm this year, so finding seven swans a-swimming shouldn’t be too difficult. Two swan species are native to this continent: trumpeter and tundra, but a third, the mute swan, is also familiar in the northeastern quadrant of the U.S. In some places, it is considered an invasive, aggressive nuisance species.
Native to Eurasia, this is the very species presented in the song. By law, the Queen of England owns all swans in her kingdom, so giving seven to one’s true love might result in a charge of theft.
Okay then. The achievable, native North American version of the carol might be:
On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Seven tundra swans a swimming,
Six Canada geese a-laying,
Five golden rings*,
Four red-winged blackbirds,
Three wild turkeys,
Two mourning doves,
And a bobwhite in a black cherry tree.
*Perhaps common goldeneye and ring-necked duck could hybridize for us.**
**Not going to happen.
About the Author
Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.