Three French Hens

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 24 December 2018

Tomorrow is Christmas Day and, like last year, I am spending the holidays in the north woods, a few km south of the southern tip of Algonquin Park, on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield. I wrote about the Twelve Days of Christmas song a year ago and am repeating that essay here with some new pictures and a few additions—including some details about those Three French Hens—that I have learned about over the past year.

I particularly like The Twelve Days of Christmas because the words are secular, even though there are myriad religious interpretations [1]. The song originated in an 18th century memory game, celebrating an annual period of drunkenness and merrymaking sandwiched between two religious feasts. Many of those twelve days are about birds that were prized for the table. In mediaeval England, this period following Christmas was presided over by the Lord of Misrule and in Scotland by the Abbott of Unreason, both titles that I would be proud to bear.

12-Days-of-Christmas-TJC-Mortgage-Inc

The words to this Christmas song were first published in English in the late 1700s as a rhyme in a book called Mirth without Mischief, likely derived from a much older French song of similar structure and content, Les Douze Mois. The now familiar tune was not written until 1905 by the English composer Frederic Austin who adapted it from a traditional English folk melody.

As you will recall—for by now it’s an ear worm that you can’t stop humming—the 12 days begin on Christmas Day with the partridge. On 5 or 6 of the following days, the gifts are birds, interrupted musically, thematically and enigmatically by those 5 golden rings. I have no idea why the first 7 gifts are birds, but I expect there are traditional and psychological reasons that have been claimed for this but they are probably all about food. There have also been many Christian interpretations of this song but really no evidence to support any of them. I find the secular interpretations to be far more interesting and valid.

In the almost 238 years since the rhyme was first published in English, there have been at least 20 different versions of the words, especially with respect to the birds. Some of these variants are undoubtedly Mondegreens [2], but they were often probably just attempts to make the words more relevant to a contemporary audience.

The PARTRIDGE—on the first day of Christmas— was always a partridge, except in Scott’s 1892 version where it was a “very pretty peacock.”  Some authors claim that the partridge was the Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa) a very popular game bird that had just been successfully introduced to England from France in about 1770, and much more likely to perch in trees than the native and abundant Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix). But what about that pear tree, which again has been often claimed to have religious connotations. The French poem that may have been the basis for the English rhyme has a partridge representing the first month “Un’ Perdix Sole’. That version says that the bird flies in the woods (‘qui vol dans les bois’). The Perdix is the Grey Partridge, which in Old French was spelt ‘perdrix’ or ‘pertriz’, pronounced something very close to ‘pear tree’. I wonder if the English rhyme was originally ‘partridge and a perdrix’, though that would be two birds for day one. Nonetheless it seems to me quite likely that the pear tree was actually the perdrix, and had nothing at all to do with pears or trees.

On day 2, the TURTLE DOVES were French hens in one 1877 version, and the FRENCH HENS on day 3 were once ‘fat hens’ in 1864, and turtle doves in 1877. There’s a theme here as the first 3 birds were highly prized for the table, an excellent start to a period of feasting.

GallicRoosterBut why ‘French‘ hens? The Latin word for chicken is gallus and, as a result, the scientific name is Gallus gallus [3]. In Roman times, France was Gaul, and people who lived there were Gallic. It seems that the simple word association between the homonyms Gallus and Gallic irrevocably associated the fowl with France. Indeed, a rooster was often a decorative ornament on church bell towers in France during the Middle Ages, and the Gallic Rooster (see photo, right) was an important symbol during the French Revolution.

Volailles_Bresse_cropped
Bresse Gauloise

But also, when the Twelve Days rhyme was written, French hens were a prized table bird in both France and England. The breed Bresse Gauloise, for example, was sometimes called the ‘queen of poultry and the poultry of kings’. This breed originated in France in the late 16th century. La Fleche is also an ancient French breed from the Loire region of western France, and was renowned for its delicate flesh. During the 16th century hens from France were a luxury import from France. In the 19th century, the Houdan, another old breed from west of Paris, was one of the main meat breeds of France, and was imported to North America in 1865.

lafleche
La Fleche

We humans are inordinately fond of eating chickens and a recent report suggests that the 60 billion chickens that we slaughter every year may turn out to be the paleontological signal of the Anthropocene. Of all the birds mentioned in the Twelve Days of Christmas, I doubt that anyone in 1800 could have predicted that the French hens and their kin would someday become the most abundant bird in the world, by at least an order of magnitude.

The CALLING BIRDS of day 4 are the most interesting to me as the original said ‘colly birds’ and subsequent variants said the birds were ‘canary’, ‘collie’, ‘colley’, ‘colour’d’, ‘curley’, ‘coloured’, ‘corley’, and finally ‘calling’ by Austin in 1909 published with his new tune. I am surprised no one ever suggested ‘collared’. The original ‘colly bird’ was the European Blackbird (Turdus merula) as ‘colly’ meant ‘black’ as in ‘coaly’, and is why border collies bear that name. The subsequent versions are undoubtedly the result of mis-hearings and misinterpretations.

The gift for day 5 in the original and modern version is GOLDEN RINGS but several sources claim that these are birds too, probably European Goldfinches, which were called goldspinks in the 1700s. Others have argued that these were Ring-necked Pheasants which have been claimed to have golden rings around their neck (but they don’t). The pheasant interpretation matches the culinary theme of the other 6 birds in the song, but the goldfinch was a popular cage bird in the 18th century. The melodic break in the song suggests a change of theme but the melody was added more than a century after the words.

The birds of days 6 and 7—the GEESE A-LAYING and the SWANS A-SWIMMING—round out the culinary theme before the song turns to dance providing some exercise after all that feasting, and chores that may have been neglected.

Here in the north woods the colly birds (and the only birds really calling) are Ravens, and the only ‘partridge’ is the Spruce Grouse, as all the geese, swans, doves, and goldfinches have departed for more southern winter quarters. The good news, this year, is that there are Pine and Evening Grosbeaks in the neighbourhood, as well as both species of redpoll. E-bird (map below) shows that I am well-situated (white star) to see Evening Grosbeaks in numbers, a bird I have seen only occasionally for the past 50 years.

EvGRO2018
Sightings of Evening Grosbeak Oct-Dec 2018 (from e-bird)

Counting the 5 golden rings, there are 28 individual birds in The Twelve Days of Christmas but I will be lucky to see even 28 individual birds on a day out in the winter woods here, where the temperature will be below freezing—and sometimes way below—for the next four months. That will not stop the 75 or more people who will gather in Algonquin Park for the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on 29 December, where they will probably record fewer than 28 species [4] in a hard day’s work on foot, skis and snowshoes. This will be the 45th consecutive CBC for Algonquin Park and the 118th CBC since Frank Chapman started the count in 1900.

During the 19th century, the Christmas Side Hunt was a popular competition to gather game for the table during the 12 days of Christmas. Chapman, however, was a conservationist who saw great value in watching rather than hunting birds. That first CBC involved only 27 birdwatchers at 25 sites from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, California, laying the foundations for what we now call citizen science.

french-chickens
French Hens (Houdans)

SOURCES

  • Ray J (1676) Ornithologiae libri tres: in quibus aves omnes hactenus cognitae in methodum naturis suis convenientem redactae accuratè descripbuntur, descriptiones iconibus. London: John Martyn.


Footnotes

  1. myriad religious interpretations: see here, for example
  2. Mondegreen: Jimi Hendrix created a classic ‘Mondegreen’ when he sang (at least to my ears) “Scuse me while I kiss this guy” in his song ‘Purple Haze’, first released as a single in 1967. Rock lyrics are a rich source of Mondegreens—words or phrases that are misheard—as Sylvia Wright, who coined the term, did when she heard a Scottish ballad say “Lady Mondegreen” when it actually said “laid him on the green”.
  3. Gallus gallus: Linnaeus established this in 1758, but John Ray called them Gallus gallinaceus in 1676 and the name had clearly been in use for some time in England and Europe. Gallus gallus is, of course, the scientific name of the wild ancestor of the domestic hen, the Red Junglefowl of southeast Asia
  4. fewer than 28 species: that’s what I predicted for last year and they did indeed record that number, and 4704 individuals. Their sighting rate was 31 birds per party hour and that was well above the average of 25. That’s a lot of work (maybe 3 birds per hour per party), but a great day out.

¿Hay huevos?

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 2 April 2018

I did my PhD field work in Nayarit, Mexico, mainly in the coastal town of San Blas. On our first long drive there from Montreal, my fellow PhD student—Neil Brown—and I attempted to learn some basic Spanish, using a small Berlitz guide. Neil dropped me off just outside town, then headed off to his own study area near Tepic, in the mountains. I soon found a place to stay and went to the local tienda to get food. Wanting to try out my new Spanish, I asked the young male owner “¿Tiene huevos?” to which he gave a sheepish smirk and pointed to a basket on the counter full of fresh eggs. After a couple of weeks of this, he said he’d help me learn some Spanish, beginning with the proper way to ask for eggs (¿Hay huevos?)—I was really asking him if he had any testicles. My Spanish has not much improved in the intervening 45 years but my scientific interest in both eggs and testes has vastly expanded.

ONRScard
ONRS nest record card

Like generations of teenage boys before me, I collected birds’ eggs. Unlike most of them, however, my collection was almost entirely photographic. In 1965, while still in high school, I had the good fortune to meet George Peck, a veterinarian who had just volunteered at the Royal Ontario Museum to coordinate the Ontario Nest Records Scheme (ONRS). This ‘scheme’ began in 1956 as a collection of file cards, one per nest, summarizing details about the location, clutch or brood size, and, sometimes, the history and fate of a nest found in Ontario. The ONRS was modeled after a similar scheme run by the British Trust for Ornithology.

George Peck was then an avid birder and (former) egg collector who had made it his lifelong hobby to photograph the nest and eggs of every North American bird [1]. For several years we spent many a weekend searching for nests throughout southern Ontario, photographing their contents and, often, setting up blinds to watch and photograph the parents as well. By the mid-1960s egg-collecting was illegal in Ontario [2] so we only took (and preserved) eggs from abandoned nests. George was always extremely careful around birds’ nests to minimize the risk of disturbing the parents and he taught me a lot about being a careful observer and note-taker.

BGG2
The exquisite nest and four eggs (plus one cowbird egg) of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, high in a maple tree at Rondeau Provincial Park, Ontario, in 1969 (R Montgomerie Photo)

Today the ONRS contains more than 120,000 nest records and provides a superb historical record of the distribution and other details (that George liked to call ‘nidiology’) of breeding birds in Ontario. Peck and James used these records to compile the first distributional and nidiological survey of breeding birds in Ontario, an early and quite successful product of citizen science.

I am writing this post on Easter Egg Weekend, at a time when we are seeing something of a renaissance in the scientific study of birds’ eggs. Just last Saturday (31 March), BBC TWO aired a special on The Wonder of Eggs, hosted (of course) by David Attenborough [3]. And last year, birds’ eggs were on the cover of Science, with a comprehensive paper on the evolution egg shape by Cassie Stoddard (Princeton Univ) and her colleagues. Recent books by Tim Birkhead (Univ Sheffield) in 2016 and Mark Hauber (Univ Illinois) in 2014 have respectively highlighted both the exquisite biology and the amazing diversity of bird’s eggs.

As a budding oölogist [4], I devoured the Romanoff’s 1949 classic The Avian Egg, but by the time I started graduate school in the 1970s research on birds’ eggs had largely fallen by the wayside. I suspect that the scientific study of wild birds’ eggs was a victim of the demonization of egg-collecting by conservation groups and the very strict laws that eventually became established in Europe and North America. In some places, these laws even make the private curation of an egg collection illegal and have lead to the—in my opinion senseless—destruction of countless egg collections.

huicholFGDLCFreud would undoubtedly have had a field day speculating on the association between egg-collecting and adolescent males. But I suspect he would have been wrong, as he was in much of what he wrote. While I was doing my PhD field work in San Blas, I met a local Huichol artist named Fermin Gonzalez de la Cruz who sold me a couple of his excellent yarn paintings. The details of one are shown to the right and were featured on the cover of National Geographic several years ago.

Huichol_shamanMany of the Huichol men that I encountered wore sombreros adorned around the rim with trinkets, and one of those men’s trinkets were mummified hummingbirds. I was studying hummingbirds, so this really intrigued me. When I asked him about it, he told me that hummingbirds were the traditional sombrero ornaments in his culture [5]. They were hard get, he said, so they became a sign that the bearer was a good hunter. As a budding behavioural ecologist, I interpreted that as a signal of status either to other males, or to potential mates. 

Birds eggs are one of several jewels of the bird world, not only beautiful but also delicate, hard to find, and (potentially) wearable. I do not know if there are any cultures that used bird eggs as ornaments but I do wonder if the European and North American obsession with egg collecting in the late 1800s was as much a signal of status as a desire to learn more about avian biology.

Regardless of the underlying psychology, the great egg collections now housed and curated in the museums of the world are a treasure trove of scientific and historical material—a subject that we will explore often on this site. Many avid (and, of course, male) collectors donated their large collections to—or indeed established—museums.

In Britain, the magnificent collection of more than a million eggs at the British Museum (Natural History), got a head start from an egg collector when Walter Rothschild donated his extensive collection (and his estate at Tring) in the 1930s. Similarly the superb egg collections at the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, California (by Ed Harrison) and the Delaware Museum of Natural History (by John du Pont) were both established by avid, even obsessive, egg collectors. In Britain, once the Protection of Birds Act [6] was passed in 1954, many private egg collections were destroyed by fearful owners, or zealous enforcers of the law [7].

DSC_6267
Common Murre eggs at the Delaware Museum of Natural History

It is often said that we should study history to provide lessons for today. From the history of oölogy, we should have learned that egg collections: (i) are a valuable scientific resource, (ii) can help to solve some conservation problems [8], and (iii) are relatively easy to preserve. There is also no concrete evidence that the collecting of even thousands of eggs had any real impact on all but a very few very rare bird species. While I would never advocate the collecting of eggs as a hobby, as it once was, I feel that some of the current restrictions on scientific egg collecting are misguided.

When Paul Sweet of the American Museum of Natural History was asked recently how many eggs were in their collection [9], he answered, apparently without hesitation, 17,921. He knew that number precisely, he said, because it had not changed in years. That’s really a shame as there is much useful information being lost when museums do not maintain an active egg-collecting program, one that minimizes any possible damage to bird populations while maximizing the usefulness of the specimens through careful preservation, data collection and curation.

SOURCES

  • Birkhead T (2016) The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg. London: Bloomsbury.

  • HauberCoverHauber ME (2014) The Book of Eggs: A Guide to the Eggs of Six Hundred of the World’s Bird Species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Peck GK, James RD (1987) Breeding birds of Ontario: nidiology and distribution (2). Toronto: Alger Press.

  • Ratcliffe  DA (1967). Decrease in eggshell weight in certain birds of prey. Nature 215: 208-210.
  • Romanoff AL, Romanoff AJ (1949) The Avian Egg. New York: John Wiley and Sons
  • Stoddard MC, Yong EH, Akkaynak D, Sheard C, Tobias JA, Mahadevan L (2017) Avian egg shape: Form, function, and evolution. Science 356: 1249-1254.

Footnotes

  1. George Peck: managed the ONRS for the rest of the century, elevating it to probably the best such set of nest records in North America. He continued to photograph nests and eggs until his eyesight failed him, coming very close to his goal of photographing all North American species. His son, Mark, now works at the ROM and continues his father’s interest in eggs and photography.
  2. egg collecting illegal in Ontario: as far as I can tell, egg collecting actually became illegal across North America, at least for migratory birds, with the Migratory Birds Convention Act of 1918. Apparently, that part of the act was rarely, if ever enforced with respect to the hobby, until the 1050s at least
  3. Attenborough’s Wonder of Eggs: has not yet aired in North America but you might be able to watch all of it (if you are in the UK) or some short clips on the BBC TWO website, and you can read about it here
  4. oölogist: literally means ‘one who studies’ eggs, but the term has been applied only to birds’ eggs; during the late 1800s and early 1900s ‘oölogist’ meant ‘egg collector’ so the term is not used very often today, except by scientists
  5. hummingbirds on sombreros: Some recent sources suggest that this story is apocryphal (though my story is true); while the hummingbird was imbued with mythological powers by the Huicholes, they apparently adorned their sombreros with a wide variety of natural objects in prehistoric times but now, like satin bowerbirds, use readily available man-made objects as decorations
  6. Protection of Birds Act of 1954: you can read a little bit about it here; I suspect that the passing of this Act had some influence on egg-collecting in North America, as well, even though egg-collecting had already been ‘illegal’ here for 36 years.
  7. destroying egg collections: Freud would undoubtedly have had a field day speculating on the psychology of the egg crushers
  8. egg collections solving conservation issue: the measurement of the eggs of some species in collections was key in pinpointing the effects of DDT on declining Peregrine Falcon populations (see Ratcliffe 1967)
  9. number of eggs in AMNH  collection: quoted in an article in The Atlantic

IMAGES: Huichol shaman from Wikipedia; all other photographs by the author

Four Calling Birds

BY BOB MONTGOMERIE Queen’s University | 25 December 2017

As this will be posted on Christmas day, I thought a post about my favourite Christmas song—and my second favourite song about birds [1]—would be in order. I particularly like The Twelve Days of Christmas because the words are secular, it originated in an 18th century memory game, the period celebrated is (or was) all about drunkenness and merrymaking sandwiched between two religious feasts, and the gifts were mainly birds. In mediaeval England, those 12 days were presided over by the Lord of Misrule and in Scotland by the Abbott of Unreason, both titles that I would be proud to bear.

539CB97A-5718-4636-9089-6B55DC48E5DFThe words to this Christmas song were first published in English in the late 1700s as a rhyme in a book called Mirth without Mischief, likely derived from a much older French song of similar sturcture and content, Les Douze Mois. The now familiar tune was not written until 1905 by the English composer Frederic Austin who adapted it from a traditional English folk melody.

As you will recall—for by now it’s an ear worm that you can’t stop humming—the 12 days begin on Christams Day with the partridge. On 5 or 6 of the following days, the gifts are birds, interrupted musically, thematically and enigmatically by those 5 golden rings. I have no idea why the first 7 gifts are birds, but I expect there are traditional and psychological reasons that have been claimed for this. There have also been many Christian interpretations of this song but really no evidence to support any of them. I find the secular interpretations to be far more interesting and valid.

In the 237 years since the rhyme was first published in English, there have been at least 20 different versions of the words, especially with respect to the birds. Some of these variants are undoubtedly Mondegreens [2], but they were often probably just attempts to make the words more relevant to a contemporary audience.

875E971D-23AD-4B05-8E77-6EAB0CC62162

  • The PARTRIDGE—on the first day of Christmas— was always a partridge, except in Scott’s 1892 version where it was a “very pretty peacock.”  Some authors claim that the 00C5A274-B6A5-4084-833D-F9F36C0381D0partridge was the Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa) a very popular game bird that had just been successfully introduced to England from France in about 1770, and much more likely to perch in trees than the native and abundant Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix). But what about that pear tree, which again has been often claimed to have religious connotations. The French poem that may have been the basis for the English rhyme has a partridge representing the first month “Un’ Perdix Sole’, and says that the bird flies in the woods (‘qui vol dans les bois’). The Perdix is the Grey Partridge, which in Old French was spelt ‘perdrix’ or ‘pertriz’, pronounced something very close to ‘pear tree’. I wonder if the English rhyme was originally ‘partridge and a perdrix’, though that would be two birds for day one. Nonetheless it seems to me quite likely that the pear tree was actually the perdrix, and had nothing at all to do with pears or trees.

On day 2 the TURTLE DOVES were French hens in one 1877 version, and the FRENCH HENS on day 3 were once ‘fat hens’ in 1864, and turtle doves in 1877. There’s a theme here as the first 3 birds were highly prized for the table, an excellent start to a period of feasting.

The CALLING BIRDS of day 4 are the most intersting to me as the original said ‘colly birds’ and subsequent variants said the birds were ‘canary’, ‘collie’, ‘colley’, ‘colour’d’, ‘curley’, ‘coloured’, ‘corley’, and finally ‘calling’ by Austin in 1909 published with his new tune. I am surprised no one ever suggested ‘collared’. The original ‘colly bird’ was the European Blackbird (Turdus merula) as ‘colly’ meant ‘black’ as in ‘coaly’, and is why border collies bear that name. The subsequent versions are undoubtedly the result of mis-hearings and misinterpretations.

4DCC5D2F-5748-47F6-9849-9FF94DE1ED78.jpegThe gift for day 5 in the original and modern version is ‘golden rings’ but several sources claim—correctly I think—that these are birds too, probably European Goldfinches, which were called goldspinks in the 1700s. Others have argued that these were Ring-necked Pheasants which have been claimed to have golden rings around their neck (but they don’t). The pheasant interpretation matches the culinary theme of the other 6 birds in the song, but the goldfinch was a popular cage bird in the 18th century. The melodic break in the song suggests a change of theme but the melody was added more than a century after the words.

The birds of days 6 and 7—the geese and the swans—round out the culinary theme before the song turns to dance providing some exercise after all that feasting, and chores that may have been neglected,

I am spending the holidays in the north woods just west of Algonquin Park where the colly birds (and the only birds really calling) are Ravens, and the only ‘partridge’ is the Spruce Grouse, as all the geese, swans, doves, and goldfinches have departed for much warmer winter quarters. Counting the 5 golden rings there are 28 birds in The Twelve Days of Christmas but I will be lucky to see even 28 individual birds on a day out in the winter woods here. That will not stop the 75 or more people who gather here for the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on 30 December where they will probably record fewer than 28 species in a hard day’s work on foot, skis and snowshoes. This will be the 44th consecutive CBC for Algonquin Park and the 118th CBC since Frank Chapman started the count in 1900.

During the 19th century the Christmas Side Hunt was a popular competition to gather game for the table during the 12 days of Christmas. Chapman, however, was a conservationist who saw great value in watching rather than hunting birds. That first CBC Involved only 27 birdwatchers at 25 sites from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, California, laying the foundations for what we now call citizen science.


Footnotes

1. While not actually about birds, my favourite song that refers to birds is The Edge of Seventeen originally performed by Fleetwood Mac but here in a fairly stunning and recent performance by Stevie Nicks accompanied by Waddy Wachtel. It’s also hard to beat Lori Anderson’s Excellent Birds

2.  Jimi Hendrix created a classic ‘Mondegreen’ when he sang (at least to my ears) “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” in his song ‘Purple Haze’, first released as a single in 1967. Rock lyrics are a rich source of Mondegreens—words or phrases that are misheard—as Sylvia Wright, who coined the term, did when she heard a Scottish ballad say “Lady Mondegreen” when it actually said  “laid him on the green”.