The first three gifts of The 12 Days of Christmas are nearly universal in modern lyric agreement – a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, and three French hens. But the deeper you get into the song, the more variation there can be, with even more room for interpretation about the birdiness of the carol. Still, the fourth day is undoubtedly birdy…
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
…Four calling birds.
Or is that really the right gift?
Calling, Colly, Colley, or Collie?
Different variations of this carol’s lyrics have several options for these particular birds, often depending on where the carol is sung. In North America, “calling” birds is the most frequent choice, and is believed to refer to any type of musical songbird. Most often, in deference to the song’s European origins, the bird in question is characterized as a European robin (Erithacus rubecula), a gifted songster present throughout much of Europe all winter long, making it a cheerful and appropriate ambassador for such popular holiday music.
A significantly older and more Old World lyrical choice, “colly” birds is another popular variant of the lyrics. As an adjective, colly is derived from an Old English word for coal, denoting black or coal-like. In this case, the bird in question may well be a common Eurasian blackbird (Turdus merula), another able songster (actually a thrush) present in much of Europe year-round, and thus certainly visible and easily recognizable during the winter, holiday gift-giving months.
As for colley and collie, both are written variants in older versions of The 12 Days of Christmas lyrics and poetry. They are simply spelling variations on the word colly, and thus mean the same.
Have Some Coal
It is worth noting that the pronunciation of the words “colly” “colley” and “collie” may not be what Americanized English presents. While these words are often pronounced with the lighter “ah” vowel, the more historically accurate pronunciation is with a long “oh” vowel, rhyming with bowl, shoal, mole, foal, and roll. That is, coal, as in what Santa Claus may bring to leave in the stockings of naughty children.
This gives this particular bird reference yet another possibility, that of “coal” birds used in coal mining – the bright canaries lowered into mining shafts and accompanying crews as a warning system for poor air quality. These small songbirds are popular pets indeed and might make for a fine holiday gift, and could even have the symbolism of protecting one’s true love or providing a breath of fresh air in the relationship.
Another Coal Bird
On the subject of coal, another bird that could be related to the song and the winter season is the coal tit (Periparus ater), a curious, energetic, and acrobatic small songbird also widespread throughout Europe year-round. They are cousins to the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) of North America and many other tits, chickadees, and titmice that brighten winter yards and enliven feeding stations throughout the holiday season.
Whichever bird the song might bring, it’s sure to be a welcome gift to have such visitors to your feeder and bird baths even during the coldest days of winter.