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12 Days of Christmas... Farm Birds?

Have you ever listened to that long long long song and wondered who exactly would give that for Christmas??? (Besides Andy, for my Office fans)

But it doesn't mean what you think. In a nutshell, here’s the 12 Days of Christmas meaning: The 12 Days following Christmas are the time it took for the three wise men to make their journey to the stable where the Jesus was born. January 6 is celebrated as Epiphany. Religious meanings have been imputed to each day’s gift, but there isn’t any historical documentation for that. To me, it’s interesting because it tells us about what life was like back then in the late 1700's.

The Partridge in a Pear Tree

The partridge is a colorful choice for the first gift. Partridges include lots of different species with bright plumage on their rotund bodies. The gray or English partridge, a Eurasian native, was known in England then. It came to North America around the turn of the 20th century, directly from Eurasia. It has adapted well and is now fairly common in North America and weigh about one pound.

The hens may lay as many as 22 eggs in a clutch and hatches of 16 to 18 are common. They are not usually raised as domestic birds.

Among modern chickens, the name Partridge survives today as a recognized color variety in both large fowl and bantam Cochin, Plymouth Rock, Wyandotte, Chantecler, and Silkie breeds (We have three Wyandotte and are looking to get several Plymouth Barred Rocks this spring).

Two Turtle Doves

Turtle Doves are a wild breed of European doves, similar to North American Mourning Doves. They would have been common in England and France during the spring, summer and fall as they migrated through to enjoy a warm winter in southern Africa. They have a long history of domestication by humans. Doves carry a message of peace and hope, appropriate for the holiday season. Their symbolism transcends religious divisions: In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the dove was the messenger of revival to Noah on the ark in the Old Testament and the embodiment of the Holy Spirit descending on Christ at his baptism in the New Testament. In the U.S., doves and pigeons — the terms are used interchangeably, although sometimes there’s a suggestion of size, smaller birds being doves and larger ones pigeons — are very popular. Their small size puts them within reach of those who live in small homes or even apartments. Literally hundreds of colors and types of pigeons have been developed by fanciers. The gift of two Turtle Doves confers both the spiritual and the earthly virtues, their beauty reflecting their spiritual power.

Three French Hens

Three French hens could be selected from the three old French breeds recognized by the APA for exhibition. Houdan, LaFleche and Crevecoeur were all in the original APA Standard published in 1874. They have long histories, as far as the 15th century in the case of the La Fleche, the 17th century for the others. All are large birds, topping out at 8 pounds for roosters and 7 pounds for hens. All are white egg layers.

Houdans have been known as Normandy fowl. They are a crested breed, recognized in mottled-black and solid-white varieties. Solid black, blue mottled and red mottled varieties have existed in the past and may be raised by fanciers yet.

In the U.S., Houdans were a popular dual-purpose production breed in the 19th and early 20th century. They have five toes instead of four.

The La Fleche, which may be the oldest of the three, was selected and managed for egg production in Britain and North America. They take their name from the town of La Fleche, around which production was centered in the early 19th century. They probably resulted from crossing Polish, Crevecoeur and Spanish birds, which gave them their white earlobes. (Yes chickens have ear lobes. They are surprisingly similar to ours!)

Their unusual horned V-shaped comb is remarkable, in the past causing these birds to be called the Horned Fowl. Although now clean-headed, some breeders report occasional offspring with small crests or tassels. The French standard requires a crest.

Although recognized now only in black, they were bred in other colors in the past. In 1580, Prudens Choiselat wrote that blacks, reds, and fawns were the best. Blue and white strains have existed in the more recent past.

The Crevecoeur is sometimes compared to the Dorking, which has history on both English and French sides of the Channel. They also have V combs, although earlier in history they also had leaf combs. Currently recognized only in black plumage, white and blue ones were raised in the past.

The Crevecoeur was also used as a production fowl in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Four Calling Birds

On Day Four, the “calling” birds were originally “collie” or “colley” birds, meaning black-as-coal blackbirds. My poultry mind wants to stretch and consider that they could have been black domestic fowls, such as the old French breeds, all of which were often black, or black Spanish chickens. Black turkeys also were popular in the 18th century in Europe. Black fowl lost favor because the dark feathers show up in the skin of the bird prepared for the table, unlike white feathers. In the 19th century, white birds lost popularity because they were thought to be constitutionally weak. Fashions in food are as variable as fashions in dress! In domestic poultry, black plumage has an iridescent quality that gives it a greenish sheen, sometimes complemented with violet. The feathers are truly beautiful and eye-catching, suitable for a gift that would honor the season. We have Marans and Australorps as our black-beauties! Living in Blackduck, MN, we have considered adding Cayuga ducks to our flock as well. They even lay dark blackish/blue eggs!

Five Gold Rings

The 12 Days of Christmas meaning behind the Day Five — Five Gold Rings — may have referred to Ring-Necked Pheasants, or perhaps to Golden Pheasants. Those original meanings unify the verses around a bird motif.

Both of them are natives of Asia but have long had successful populations in Europe and the British Isles. The Romans probably introduced them to Europe during their Empire. Pheasant were accepted residents of Britain by the 10th century.

Ring-necked pheasants were introduced to North America in the late 19th century in Oregon, where they succeeded on the second attempt, and after, were introduced in other states. They are now the state bird of South Dakota. They flourish in the wild and are one of the most hunted birds today.

Six Geese A-Laying

Geese certainly were part of English and French life in the 16th century and long before. Geese have been hunted and tamed and domesticated since the early days of settled agricultural life. West of England Geese, also known as Old English geese, may well be the breed that came over with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. They were an important American regional breed, particularly in New England.

Goose is the traditional festive bird for the holiday feast. When raising geese for meat, it’s important to note that geese do not thrive in the intense husbandry conditions of modern agriculture, so they are not as plentiful as they were in the 18th century when every farm had some. Most American cooks have never roasted one, so recipes have disappeared. Prominent chef Nigella Lawson is a champion of goose. Because they are waterfowl, they have a layer of fat under the skin. When you roast goose, it naturally bastes itself.

Wild geese have lived closely with humans for centuries. Even as little as a century ago, they were maintained as semi-wild livestock in England. Villagers let their geese forage and live on the River Cam. The geese spent the spring and summer on the village green, then migrated to the river for the winter. In February, the owners would call their geese, which responded to their voices and returned home to nest and rear their young. Those offspring were a significant contribution to the villagers’ income. Those Geese A-Laying were valued not only for the eggs themselves, but for the additional birds into which the eggs would hatch.

Seven Swans A-Swimming

Swans are one of the most charismatic birds. Their graceful flight and peaceful beauty as they glide across the water have inspired humans to find spiritual meaning in them. Richard the Lionhearted is often credited with bringing swans to England on his return from the Crusades in the 12th century. It was in the 12th century that the Crown claimed ownership of all swans. In the 15th century, swan ownership was shared with the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies. That continues today, with an annual ceremony called Swan Upping, in which cygnets (baby swans) are captured, weighed, checked for health problems, banded and released.

So, the 12 Days of Christmas meaning behind Seven Swans-A-Swimming would have had royal as well as spiritual connotations.

In the 17th century, Mute Swans were semi-domesticated in England. In the Netherlands, they were farmed, for their down, their meat and as ornamental birds, according to Sylvia Bruce Wilmore, in her book, Swans of the World. In the Netherlands, those practices continued until after World War II. Because all swans in England belong officially to the Royal Family, swans given as gifts would have been marked on the upper part of their bills. Their markings identified the person who had responsibility for them and thus could benefit from them. Marks date back to 1370.

Today in the U.S., migratory waterfowl are protected by state and federal laws. Permits are required to keep wild birds legally. If you are in any doubt about birds you are considering acquiring, check with the state department of fish and game, parks and wildlife or natural resources.

Mute swans are controversial residents along the East Coast, where they have displaced local Trumpeter swans. Mute swans have been acquired as decorative waterfowl for parks and estates, but easily escape and become feral. They are now regarded as unwanted invaders, trashing the fragile wetland habitat in which they live and chasing out native birds. To avoid those problems, the state of New Hampshire requires by law that Mute swans be pinioned, an operation done on young cygnets to remove the distal joint of the wing, making flight impossible. They retain their mythic grip on people, touching the hearts of those who glimpse them gliding across a misty lake. This dichotomy confounds wetlands managers who want at least to control Mute Swans, if not eliminate them entirely.

Current wildlife control professionals hunt them to reduce the population, which has been successful. Tundra and Trumpeter Swans are unquestionably native birds to North America. They remain protected. - and very noisy I might add! We have had several Trumpeter Swans around our land and they really do sound like a band of off-key trumpets!

Swans-A-Swimming remain a lovely image, but one not practical for domestic production.

Eight Maids a-Milking

In the 16th and 17th centuries, cattle breeds were as different from modern cattle as poultry breeds are. Devon cattle were among the breeds that the maids may well have been milking.

We are looking to get a small breed of cow this spring. Possibly Jersey or Dexter.

Milkmaids were associated with good skin at this period of time because they were likely to avoid the smallpox that scarred so many. Because of their close association with cows, they were exposed to cowpox, a much less serious disease that made them immune to smallpox. Edward Jenner relied on this observation to develop the first “vaccine,” a word that comes from the Latin word for “cow.”

Ladies, Lords, Pipers, and Drummers

The nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers piping and twelve drummers drumming also reflect aspects of life in the 18th century. The social system placed Lords and Ladies above the common people living on the farms (Did you know we hold this title ourselves? Check it out here), the Pipers Piping and Drummers Drumming who entertained them. Their performance would have been an expression of military strength as well as general festivities, dancing and making merry. They all would have appreciated the birds that came to the feast. This year we were able to have our own farm-raised, organic duck for Thanksgiving and it was possibly the most delicious thing I have ever had! This spring we will be raising rabbits, chickens and possibly more ducks for our family meals. Won't you come for dinner?

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