Partridges, turtle doves, swans... Barry Hudson of Oxford Ornithological Society on the truth behind the festive song

With Christmas soon upon us, it is appropriate to write this week about the present day status of the birds included in the popular carol The Twelve Days Of Christmas.

Of course, the numbers used are reference to the teaching of the Holy Scripture and, in many ways, are not correct from an avian perspective, just the very idea of a partridge in a pear tree is a most unlikely happening.

From a birding point of view we are only interested in six and can discount the three French hens as they are the domestic hen known as Faverolles, a somewhat noisy bird of the farmyard.

We start with the grey partridge, more commonly known as the English partridge. This bird previously was a most abundant game bird thriving wherever ant nests abounded, as the chicks were nourished by the contents of ant hills that were utilised particularly in the early growth stages, giving them, literally, a flying start.

Partridges were a favourite sporting target for the most skilful of marksmen as, on reaching the guns, the covey explodes in different directions making them a very challenging target.

The taste of partridge is preferred by many for its more subtle taste compared to the larger pheasant.

Up until the harsh winter of 1962/63, partridge were common in our county, but this brutal winter decimated their numbers and they are still struggling to get back to their former numbers.

It is all credit to the shooting fraternity that most shoots leave them to their own devices as they continue to build toward a sustainable population. The partridge usually seen out in the Oxfordshire countryside is the red-legged or more commonly called the French partridge.

These are easily reared indoors, unlike the English bird, and, as a consequence, huge numbers of red-legs are shot yearly.

I am seeing the English more as they continue to make a comeback and I view the future optimistically.

The next bird mentioned is the ‘turtle dove’. Please don’t look for one around Christmas as it only visits us to breed in the spring and summer months. Turtle doves are struggling, not only in our county, but nationwide as they have problems in their winter quarters in Africa and with the thoughtless gunners of the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, in our own country, changing farming practices leave them short of the food they could once rely on.

You can still see them in the county come spring, as they are regular nesters – albeit in small numbers on the marvellous RSPB Otmoor reserve. Incidentally, the starling murmuration above Otmoor some evenings can be absolutely stunning, so it’s a good time to get down there and witness one of nature’s most spectacular displays. The ‘four calling birds’ were originally called Colly birds and meant black birds; perhaps our own common garden blackbird or maybe either jackdaw, rook, carrion crow or raven – a bird not nowadays uncommon in our county. All the corvids are doing well.

The ‘geese a’laying’ are greylag type and we often see their rather messy cousins cropping the grass that grows alongside our pits and reservoirs.

They are doing well and it’s often well worth looking closely at them as they sometimes have rarer goose species within their ranks.

Our last is the very graceful ‘seven swans a-swimming’ and is a bird familiar to all as it sleekly glides along our rivers or across our lakes.

It has the title of mute swan, which is rather apt as all we usually hear from it is an angry hiss when we venture too close to its cygnets.

Mute swans have taken to feeding on fields of oilseed rape and I have seen some farmers exhibiting great frustration as they have shown definite signs of wishing to deprive Her Majesty of a meal or two.

Swans do eat a substantial amount of their crops but the rape does recover, although it will of course yield less well where it has been trimmed by those graceful necks.

On an up to date note, I have been looking for a great grey shrike seen recently at Baulking Fullers Earth Pit. It was reported and I dashed down to see it but arrived just minutes after it had flown off.

These birds have large winter territories and it is still in the vicinity. I will continue to regularly look for it and, although, it has been somewhat elusive, this is a bird that perches prominently and can be easily seen from its bright white breast.

I wish to take this opportunity to wish all the readers of myself and Keith Clack a very merry and healthy Christmas.