The traditional Christmas song, ‘The Twelve Days Of Christmas’, is a festive ornithological treat, partridge, turtle dove, calling birds, French hens, geese and swans. That’s half of Christmas dominated by birds, and the modern version has lost some of its birds through the years.
The twelve days start on Christmas day and run through to the eve of the Epiphany on the 5th January, which was the end of the festive period, traditionally a time for merrymaking.
The song itself, first published in 1780, contains a variety of birds some well known, partridge and turtle dove, but others slightly less obvious. The modern ‘calling birds’ were originally ‘colly birds’ a name for blackbirds, relating to their ‘black as coal’ appearance. And French hens are thought to relate to any foreign hens rather than French hens specifically.
Older versions contained even more birds with a pretty peacock, replacing the partridge in an 1892 version of the song, there have also been ducks – a – laying, cocks – a – crowing and squabs – a – swimming. Other wildlife included bears – a - beating and hares – a – running, however, lords always seem to have been leaping.
There have been regional variations with Australian versions replacing the traditional birds with native Australian wildlife. The Scottish version included an array of exotic wildlife including parrots, plovers, starlings, grey geese, a bull and an Arabian baboon.
So what would a modern Welsh version look like?
Well on day one a partridge in a pear tree would not be an easy tick, grey partridge have declined in the UK by over 80% in the last 25 years, and with the decline in traditional orchards, finding one in a pear tree could take a lot longer than 12 days.
Day two is no easier, by December turtle doves are sunning themselves in their wintering grounds in West Africa. But even at the height of summer you would be lucky to find a turtle dove in Wales. Having declined by over 90% in the UK, and no longer found as a breeding bird in Wales, the iconic turtle dove is likely to be absent for more than just the twelve days of Christmas in coming years.
Day three is an easier tick, French or foreign hens can be found in farms and gardens across Wales.
How about day four, well four colly birds should be an easy tick, blackbirds are obvious at this time of year rooting around through the fallen leaves, and with recent population estimates showing an increase, and coming in at number 5 on the 2013 Big Garden Birdwatch in Wales, blackbirds are easily spotted.
The next ornithological gift would be six geese a laying. You would think geese would be easily found in Wales, with a number of species over wintering here, but one species in particular is becoming increasingly rare. The last remaining population of Greenland white fronted geese in Wales is found around the Dyfi Estuary, the population has declined from around 167 birds in the late 1990’s to only 55 birds in 2012. Numbers in 2013 are lower again so far and finding six Greenland white fronted geese may prove a difficult task in a few years.
So, day seven, and the final tick, ‘seven swans a swimming’. Several species of swan are found in Wales, the mute swan is familiar to everyone and the population is doing well, having recovered following the ban on lead fishing weights in 1987. Bewick and whooper swans over winter in the UK, and small numbers may be found in Wales; both species are specially protected due to their small and vulnerable populations, so finding seven of either species would be exciting.
Of the birds featured in the song mute swans and blackbirds are doing well and should be around for many years to come, but turtle doves are already lost as a breeding species in Wales. Many other species, including grey partridge, could also be lost to future generations as bird numbers in our countryside continue to decline.
But there are things we can do to ensure the birds mentioned in the song and many others are around for future generations to appreciate and enjoy. In the New Year the Welsh Government has plans to review Glastir, the agri-environment scheme that rewards farmers for carrying out work on their land to benefit wildlife. Glastir must provide a countryside where nature can flourish and species such as turtle dove can recover.
We can all have our say and tell the Welsh Government to ensure that Glastir delivers a countryside where the iconic wildlife, which is ingrained in our culture and heritage, can thrive. Click here to take action now.
It just goes to show that when people visit Welsh Reserves they are sometimes so inspired by what they see they land up fighting the cause for nature in the most unexpected places in the most unexpected ways!
This is what happened to young Niamh Stewart , a 12 year old girl from Dubai, who after visiting the RSPB Conwy Reserve this summer has decided to try and raise £250 by taking part in the United Arab Emirates 5k Color Run on the 14th December.
Niamh said that she was inspired when she " visited the Reserve and was amazed at the wild birds I saw and how the sanctuary has been built to protect the birds and keep them safe".
The Color Run was founded in January of 2012 as an event to promote healthiness and happiness by bringing the community together to participate in the “Happiest 5k on the Planet”. basically the run is a fun un-timed race in which thousands of participants, or “Color Runners”, are doused from head to toe in different colours at each kilometer. With only two rules...Wear white at the starting line and Finish plastered in colour!
Niamh has raised £200 so far, so to get her over the finishing line of £250 and donate ckeck out her Just giving page at http://www.justgiving.com/Niamh-Stewart.
If you are a regular reader of my blogs, you would have heard me use the word “near mythicals” quite a lot.
What are “near mythicals”?
Well first of all you won’t find the term in any birding book. It is a phrase me and my good birding friend Nigel coined, and we have spread its use across the Newport Wetland message board.
“Near mythicals” are the birds that you know exist as you’ve seen photos of them taken by other people, but you never quite see them. They are not necessarily rare birds; they can be as common as the Wren. A good example of one of the most common birds in the UK, but how often do you actually see one, and when you do, how fleeting is your view? You quite often hear their explosive call coming from a shrub or bramble patch, but all you see is a shape moving around in the undergrowth, indeed their Latin name literally means “hole dweller”.
My own personal “near mythicals” are of course Bearded Tits. I have been visiting Newport Wetlands for about four or five years now. Although I see them more regularly, having learnt to ID them in flight a little better, I can still count on one hand the number I have seen in picture perfect pose on a reed stem. Someone at RSPB HQ, The Lodge, clearly has a sense of humour as the last edition of Birds magazine had a picture to die for on the cover, of a Bearded Tit dipping into water. My membership card this year also has a picture of a Bearded Tit on it.
I have other “near mythicals”. I would love to see a Crossbill. It is missing off my life list. I once stood in a car park at Gibraltar Point looking into the branches of the pine trees there until my neck hurt. These wonderful birds have one of the most adaptive bills in the British Isles. It is crossed so it can remove the seeds from pine cones easily. I am told one of the best ways to get a heads up that they may be feeding hidden in the tops of the trees is to watch for the seed kernels dropping from high above. Eventually someone wandered up to me in that car park and told me they were there half an hour ago. That is another sign of a true “near mythical”.
“Near mythicals” can change from year to year. The Green Woodpecker eluded me a couple of years back. It ended up being the last bird ticked on my 2011 list, ironically at the Lodge in Sandy. It was one of the first last year, when one obligingly flew down in front of me whilst getting the new year list off to a start at Newport Wetlands. Until recently Spoonbills were eluding me by a couple of days everywhere I visited. We tracked them down on the East coast of England!
2014 is going to be the year of the Hawfinch for me. I have never ever seen this most stunning of the finches. I know the Forest Of Dean is a good place to find them, and I also have a visit to North Wales pencilled in. Hopefully in the not too distant future I will be bringing you a blog regaling my first sighting of this bird!
You see “near mythicals” don’t have to stay “near mythicals” for ever. If you are willing to get up early, and put the time in you can be rewarded with some incredible views of these elusive birds. One such example of this is another Newport Wetlands birder, and friend of mine, John. He made it his mission to get those definitive photos of the Bearded Tits. He was down in the reed beds at the crack of dawn as often as he could. I bumped into him a few times on the days I managed to get up early. The Bearded Tits had left several minutes before my arrival in case you are wondering. It had become a real labour of love. The result was the magical piece of film he produced that is attached to the end of this blog. There is no better example of what you put in you can get back out! I hope you enjoy it, and get to see some of your own “near mythicals” soon!
All Images © Anthony Walton