On this very musical day of The Twelve Days of Christmas, the connection to birds might seem obvious, but the associations go even deeper – and can be more fun – than many birders might realize.
On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
…Eleven pipers piping.
Pipers and Their Peeps
When birders hear the term “piper” they automatically think of sandpiper. There are more than 25 species of birds in the world with “sandpiper” in their names, and even more birds of the Scolopacidae bird family are classified as sandpipers, even without the term as an immediate part of their identity – including yellowlegs, curlews, dowitchers, phalaropes, and godwits. Seeing 11 species of sandpipers in any day would be a true gift, and given the widespread ranges of these species, a remarkable feat for any holiday gift-giving. It wouldn’t be an impossible day of birding, however, particularly during migration periods or in winter when these birds intermingle more on their non-breeding ranges.
A Flock of Eleven
Having pipers as such a high gift in the carol’s numerical count is very appropriate, as these are highly social birds that congregate in tremendous flocks throughout the year. They may even work together while foraging, darting back and forth into shallow waters or wave edges as they chase after worms, insects, and other prey. Many sandpipers will joined mixed flocks at times, making it even more possible to spot more than one type of sandpiper at once – though perhaps not 11 separate species in the same flock.
Not all sandpipers are exceedingly social, however, and just as there are people who prefer a bit of peace and quiet during the hectic holiday season, the solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) prefers its own company. Still, it’s a ‘piper, and it’s a treat to hear it piping!
More “Piping” Birds
Sandpipers, however, aren’t the only “piping” birds that birders might see. The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is an obvious alternative, though not so alternative – plovers are closely related to sandpipers and are often seen in close proximity to their beach bird cousins.
Several other piping birds are more unique and astonishing finds, including the piping crow (Corvus typicus), piping bellbird (Ornorectes cristatus), and several species of piping hornbill – all named either for thin, piping-like marks on their plumage or unique vocalizations they are able to make. The most amazing piping birds, however, are the piping-guans, five species of large, almost completely arboreal birds found in South American jungles. They eat primarily fruit, have complex vocalizations, and are related to chachalacas and curassows. To receive 11 of these outstanding birds (or simply to see 11 of them) would be a phenomenal gift indeed!
Gift of Music
Ultimately, the gift of pipers piping is a gift of music. This season is fill with so many carols, ballads, orchestral pieces, and other amazing sounds, it’s hard not to think of the holidays when you hear certain chords or lyrics. Yet that also means that this musical gift could be a gift of any accomplished songbird, particularly one known for singing throughout the year, such as a number of thrushes, cardinals, chickadees, tits, lyrebirds, and other feathered musicians. These birds are more likely to stay in their same range year-round, and thus not only are more apt to be spotted during the holiday season, but will be using song to help claim their territory right when festive music is at its height. And that’s music to a birder’s ears!