The Twelve Days of Christmas is a Christmas carol sung in one version or another around the world. Recently someone asked me to identify the birds in three verses of the carol. What are turtle doves, French hens and calling birds?

I called Gus Ben David, my poultry expert, and he told me that French hen was a generic name for a breed of chicken that originated from France. It seems these hens were bred for multi-purpose use as they not only were good layers but also valuable meat birds. Not a bad gift.

Turtle doves are a species of dove from Africa, Asia and Europe, although I have heard our mourning doves also called turtle doves. By the way, the turtle is not a reference to the reptile but to the Latin name of the European species of dove, turtur. Turtle doves have very strong pair bonds and as such are considered a symbol of love — another nice gift to receive.

Now for the puzzle I am not sure I can solve. “Calling birds” make no sense to anyone I know, so with some research I found that in the original version the verse was spelled “three colly birds.” This spelling was changed over the years to colley, collie, colour’d, Corley or canary birds and finally to calling birds. Colly in the late 1700 was a regional English expression for black, but because it was so colloquial no one then knew the meaning so it was changed through the years until it is now pretty much “calling birds.” Not sure whether this is what I want for Christmas!

The rest of the birds in the Twelve Days of Christmas are self-explanatory — six geese a-laying, seven swans a-swimming and the good ol’ partridge in a pear tree.

I hope you all had a pleasant and birdy Christmas and took time to listen to the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Bird Sightings

Lanny McDowell found a winter wren by his Tashmoo home, as well as two snowy owls at Norton Point on Dec. 16.

Ken Magnuson took a super photo of a pine warbler in the snow at the Edgartown golf club on Dec. 17. On Dec. 18, Ken photographed a snowy owl in the parking lot at the end of the right fork of the road to Katama Beach.

Jeff Bernier sent a fine photo of an Eastern Meadowlark in flight over the fields of the Farm Institute at Katama on Dec. 18.

Sarah Mayhew has been on a roll since she arrived for the Christmas holidays from California. On Dec. 19, she spotted two snowy owls — one on the runway of the Katama airport and a second on the road out to Norton Point. On Dec. 20, Sarah again spotted a snowy owl at Katama, but although she tried, found none on Chappaquiddick the following day. Sarah did photograph a merlin at Wasque on Dec. 21. Then up at Quansoo, she found two more snowy owls one by the parking lot and another mid beach on the dunes.

Nat Woodruff and Warren Woessner both found a single snow goose in with a flock of Canada geese at the Farm Institute on Dec. 20. Nat found the bird in the morning and Warren found one in the evening.

David Dandridge spotted a snowy owl on the Vineyard Haven breakwater on Dec. 20. It was being harassed by crows.

Samantha Chaves found a red-breasted merganser dead by the Oak Bluffs breakwater on Dec. 21. My guess is that the duck hit the power line, died and then crows and gulls started picking on it.

On Rob Culbert’s Dec. 21 bird walk they spotted what he figured was a broad-winged hawk at the south end of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School football field. Then out at Norton Point they found two snowy owls and at the parking lot off the south fork of Katama Road they found three horned larks.

Jeff Bernier sent several photos of birds he found at Little Beach, Edgartown on Dec. 22. They included sanderlings bathing, an American oystercatcher in flight, a common goldeneye (one of 25-plus) and a black duck taking flight (one of 16).

We had the first white-throated sparrow at our feeder in several weeks on Dec. 23.

Beware white plastic bags in the dunes; they can easily be misidentified as snowy owls! One friend admitted she took multiple photos of the “bag owl” before she realized what it really was. Good thing cameras are digital — can you imagine the embarrassment of having to develop several photos of white plastic bags! Must say I have been fooled by white plastic bags before, but luckily never photographed the mistaken identity.

Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas or whatever you celebrate and that you have a healthy, happy and birdy New Year.

Please report your bird sightings to
Susan B. Whiting is the co-author of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her website is