by Whit Gibbons

December 21, 2003

According to my calculations, by the twelfth day of Christmas someone's true love had delivered more geese and swans than any other bird. In fact, 42 of each fowl ended up under new ownership, compared to only 12 partridges and 22 turtledoves. French hens at 30 and calling birds at 36 were a bit closer in numbers to the geese and swans but still fell short. I am almost certainly not the first person to make these Christmas bird counts but am pleased to finally have done so. If you think these counts are wrong, do them yourself.

In case you are wondering what this has to do with ecology and the environment, remember that anything involving an animal, plant, heavy metal, air, water, sound, most other tangible things, and many intangible ones can be construed as having something to do with the environment. Since this is the holiday season--a time for giving--my gift to readers is to apprise them of some ecological aspects of this song. For example, how many kinds of geese and swans are there? Are all of them suitable for gift giving? What are the benefits of receiving a partridge or a French hen?

All the many different kinds of swans and geese belong to the same family of mostly migratory waterfowl. 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 eight or so swan species are all white or mostly so. However, the species found in Australia and New Zealand is black and does not migrate. Seven black swans have probably never been given to anyone on the seventh day of Christmas. As with many animals closely associated with humans through domestication, male, female, and babies have different names. A male swan is a cob, a female a pen, and the babies, aka ugly ducklings, are called cygnets.

Of more than a dozen different species of geese, several are native to the United States. The most commonly known ones are the snow, blue, and Canada geese, which travel up and down much of the country during migratory seasons. One goose that would not be suitable for Christmas gift giving is the Hawaiian goose, or nene, the Hawaiian state bird, which is on the federal endangered species list. Only 30 are believed to have been alive a half-century ago, although successful recovery plans have increased the numbers. Nene do not migrate. (Why fly to another island with the same temperature?) They mostly walk around on lava slopes instead of swimming around in water and have less webbing on their feet than other geese.

The so-called swan goose is a creature that might confuse people who give geese and swans as gifts. Do you give them on the sixth or seventh day? This dilemma is not likely to affect gift givers in the United States. Under natural conditions, swan geese live in the region of northern China, Siberia, and Japan.

Partridges and French hens are birds in the quail and pheasant family. They can be pretty; they produce eggs that are edible; and they themselves are edible. Good gifts for some occasions. Turtledoves are a type of pigeon found from northern Europe to Africa. Their numbers have declined considerably in recent years. I have no idea what a "calling bird" is but assume this could apply to most species, since they nearly all have a call of some sort.

In the final count of bird distribution and abundance patterns as determined from this song, the record for highest number should probably go to the geese. All 42 of them were a-laying and should presumably soon have goslings running around, whereas the 42 swans were simply a-swimming, thus no ugly ducklings were 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.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)