blackbird feeding on holly berries | The RSPB

The 12 birds of Christmas

This festive season, discover the story of 12 fascinating Christmas birds in our twist on the classic carol The Twelve Days of Christmas.

grey partridge a snow covered cereal field | The RSPB

One partridge in a pear tree

The UK’s native grey partridge is usually found scurrying around in fields and hedgerows, so quite why the bird in the carol was up a tree has always been a mystery. One theory suggests that the lyrics would once have included both the English and French words for partridge – ‘a partridge et un perdrix’ – and over time this was simplified to the similar-sounding ‘partridge in a pear tree’.

Pair of turtle doves on ground in long grass | The RSPB

Two turtle doves

From ancient Greek mythology to Shakespeare, turtle doves have long been a symbol for love and devotion, so it’s no wonder that the gift giver in The Twelve Days of Christmas sent a pair of turtle doves to his true love. When the carol was first published in 1780, turtle doves were a common sight in our countryside, but now these dainty doves hold the unenviable title of the UK’s fastest declining bird, having declined 98% since 1970.

Three hens in a barnyard | The RSPB

Three french hens

Domestic chickens descend from red junglefowl, which live in the tropical jungles of south east Asia. It’s hard to believe, but scientists studying the famously fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex discovered that it is more closely related to the humble chicken than living reptiles, such as crocodiles!

Blackbird in a snow covered garden looking at a Santa figure | The RSPB

Four colly birds

Although most of us are used to singing about four ‘calling birds’, the song originally referred to ‘colly birds’. ‘Colly’ is an old word for black, and so the lover’s gift is in fact four blackbirds. With its beautiful song, this familiar garden bird is one of the nation’s favourites and consistency ranks in the top five birds in our annual Big Garden Birdwatch.

Goldcrest perched on a branch | The RSPB

Five gold rings

Goldcrests are the UK’s smallest birds, weighing in at less than a 10p coin. It’s amazing to think that something so tiny could manage to migrate here across the North Sea, as continental goldcrests do each winter. In fact, in the past, people found this so hard to believe that they thought goldcrests must hitch a ride on the back of woodcocks, which arrive in the UK around the same time, and so they were nicknamed “woodcock pilots”. We now know that these amazing little birds can, and do, make the journey unaided – a truly impressive feat!

Barnacle geese at Preston Merse | The RSPB

Six geese a-laying

Barnacle geese migrate to the UK in winter to escape the harsher climate of the Arctic, where they breed. For centuries, their sudden and inexplicable appearance baffled people and ultimately led to the myth that barnacle geese hatch out of barnacles and spend the summer developing, unseen, underwater – hence their name!

Pair of Whooper swans swimming on open water in snowy setting | The RSPB

Seven swans a-swimming

A sure sign that winter is on the way is the arrival of whooper swans, which migrate to the UK from Iceland, although a small number nest in the north.

Larger than Bewick swans, they have long thin necks, black legs and a triangular patch of yellow on their bills. 

Nightjar perched on a log | The RSPB

Eight maids a-milking

The nightjar, one of our strangest and most elusive birds, was once known as the ‘goatsucker’, because people mistakenly thought it drank milk from goats at night! In fact, this nocturnal bird hangs around farm animals because of it feasts on the tasty insects, like moths, that they attract.

Pair of Great crested grebes on lake in heavy snowfall | The RSPB

Nine ladies dancing

In late winter, love is in the air for great crested grebes. On lakes and ponds up and down the UK, pairs get together to shake their heads, paddle their feet and waggle wet weed at each other. It might not sound very romantic, but this “weed dance” is the key to attracting a mate in the grebe world.

Male Ruff displaying | The RSPB

Ten lords a-leaping

During the breeding season, male ruffs strut their funky stuff in a bid to impress the ladies at leks – nature’s equivalent of a dancefloor on a Saturday night. And it would seem they find the boys’ bobbing, bouncing and jumping truly irresistible because the male with the best moves earns the right to mate.

Close-up of common sandpiper | The RSPB

11 pipers piping

As its name suggests, the common sandpiper has a high-pitched piping call, which helps it to be heard above the sound of fast-flowing water where it lives. This small wader migrates to Africa in autumn, before returning to the UK in spring to breed.

Three snipes | The RSPB

12 drummers drumming

Most male birds attract a mate by singing or calling to them, but male snipe have a different tactic to woo the ladies. They have special tail feathers that flap like a flag in the wind and make a strange drumming sound when they dive through the air during their spectacular display flights.