Friday, December 23, 2016

Seeking the Six Birds of Christmas

            The Christmas season is a busy time for bird watchers. That’s when more than 70,000 volunteer birders from across the country participate in the annual Christmas Bird Counts to tally every bird observed in one of 2,400 designated areas. It’s also the time to race around looking for the last few species to add to your “year list” before the year comes to a close.
            Birders looking to start a new holiday tradition, however, might consider seeking out all of the birds mentioned in the classic carol The Twelve Days of Christmas. There are only six birds mentioned in the song, so it should be easy, right? Not quite. The song originated in England, so some of the birds aren’t found in our area. But don’t let that stop you. Some have been introduced to the U.S., and others have close relatives nearby that you could substitute if you don’t happen to be flying to Europe for the holidays.
            So here’s your guide to finding and observing The Six Birds of Christmas:

7 Swans a-Swimming:
This is the easiest of them all, since swans are quite common in Rhode Island, especially in winter. And since they spend little time on land, they will almost always be a-swimming. Nearly all will be mute swans, a non-native species introduced to the region from Europe in the late 19th century. Just about every unfrozen coastal pond should have a few mute swans throughout the winter, as well as many protected salt water coves. Look especially at Easton’s Pond, Green End Pond, Gardiner Pond, Sisson Pond and St. Mary’s Pond on Aquidneck Island, as well as at Trustom Pond in South Kingstown, Apponaug Cove and the East Providence Reservoir. Every year a few tundra swans also stop in the state as they migrate to their wintering grounds to the south, and some stick around through much of the winter, especially at Tiogue Lake in Coventry.

6 Geese a-Laying:
The breeding season for geese in the Northeast is in April and May, so it’s highly unlikely to observe wild geese laying eggs before then. But it is nearly impossible to spend a day exploring Rhode Island in winter without seeing geese. Lots of them. Canada geese are abundant this time of year and can be found on almost every cornfield, unfrozen pond and golf course in the state.
But Canada geese aren’t the only species to watch for. Brant, a smaller and darker goose found exclusively in coastal waters, are common in Rhode Island in winter, especially at Third Beach and Fort Adams on Aquidneck Island, but also in Greenwich Cove and elsewhere around Narragansett Bay. A few snow geese – white birds with black wingtips and orange beaks – can usually be found during the winter months on cornfields in South County and the East Bay. And occasionally birders report cackling geese and greater white-fronted geese, both western species that often wander far from their usual range. In the winter of 2007, seven species of geese could be observed on Aquidneck Island on a single day – all of the above species, plus a couple pink-footed geese and a barnacle goose, both Eurasian species.

4 Calling Birds:
This one is a bit confusing, since the original lyrics to the song referred to “four colly birds,” an archaic term in England meaning black, probably a reference to the Eurasian blackbird. To see one, you’ll have to travel to Europe, where they are common and conspicuous in backyards, gardens and woodlands. Alternatively, you could search instead for its closest relative in the U.S., the American robin, more and more of which are overwintering in Rhode Island, especially in coastal areas where berry-bearing shrubs are plentiful throughout the season.
The North American version of the song’s lyrics changed to “calling birds” in 1909, and rather than referring to a particular bird species, it refers to a birds’ behavior of calling or singing. While most birds sing primarily during the breeding season in the spring, many species have alternate songs or calls that they use year-round, including common backyard birds like chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and sparrows. So the easiest way to check this one off your Christmas bird list will be to take a walk anywhere songbirds are likely to be found and listen for their calls.

3 French Hens:
            Here’s another one that may require a bit of travel, as it likely refers to Faverolles chickens, a French breed originally raised for its eggs and meat but now primarily bred for poultry exhibitions. They have quite a distinctive look – black, brown and straw-colored feathers, feathered feet, fluffy beards and five toes rather than the usual four. They are available for sale online from North American breeders, but to get full credit for seeing one you may need to travel to the villages of Houdan and Faverolles in north-central France, where the breed originated.
            The easy way out would be to visit a local farm to find a Rhode Island red or other domestic chicken, since all chickens are the same species – a domesticated version of the red junglefowl of Southeast Asia. Remember that the song specifies hens, so seeing a rooster doesn’t count.
Better yet, search for wild members of the chicken family, which include pheasants and turkeys. The last place to see wild pheasants in the Ocean State – not counting those that have escaped from local game farms – is on Block Island, where they are still common. Or look almost anywhere for wild turkeys. They’re usually easy to find.

2 Turtle Doves:
            About 20 species of turtle doves are found in Europe, Africa and Asia. One of them, the Eurasian collared dove, was introduced to the Bahamas in 1974 and quickly expanded to the U.S., where it is now resident almost everywhere except the Northeast. Looking much like the very common mourning dove, which is easily observed throughout Rhode Island, the Eurasian collared dove is abundant in the Southeast and easily seen there in all seasons on utility wires in most communities. If you’re not traveling south for the winter, look for a local mourning dove and consider it close enough.
           
A Partridge in a Pear Tree:
            Partridges are an Old World family of gamebirds with no native species anywhere in the U.S. However, two species have been introduced into the Mountain West and Great Plains for hunters, the gray partridge and the chukar, and they are now resident and easily observable if you know where to look. Like French hens, they are also members of the pheasant and turkey family. The closest partridge relatives in the Northeast are the northern bobwhite quail, a bird of open grasslands that has disappeared from Rhode Island but can be found in appropriate habitat in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and the ruffed grouse, which are most easily observed at Nicholas Farm Management Area in Coventry.
Finding one in a pear tree, however, is next to impossible.

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on December 21, 2016.

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