As the numbers get higher the holiday gets closer, and the gifts of The 12 Days of Christmas get just a little trickier to connect to birds. So what, exactly, does the eighth day of Christmas have to do with birds at all?
On the eight day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
…Eight maids a-milking.
There’s more connection between milk and birds than you may realize!
Birds are not mammals, and do not produce glandular milk to feed their offspring, but some birds do produce a milk-like substance called crop milk that serves the same purpose. This highly nutritious, slurry-like “milk” is relatively gooey and crumbly, similar to the texture of cottage cheese, and is high in protein and fat. Unlike mammalian milk, it does not contain calcium or carbohydrates. It may be white, yellow, or grayish in color, and parent birds regurgitate it to feed their young for the first few days or weeks of life when proper nutrition is so very critical for healthy growth. Gradually, other food, such as insects, is mixed into the crop milk to wean young birds onto their adult diet.
Not all birds produce crop milk, but it is common among pigeons, flamingos, and emperor penguins. While other birds do regurgitate food to feed their chicks, that food is simply partially digested adult food and does not have the extra components of crop milk.
Birds That Drink Milk
Some birds actually drink milk, as unusual as that is – in general, the nutritional components of cow or goat milk are not suitable for birds to consume (birds are lactose-intolerant), and birders should never offer milk for their birds to sip. Blue tits, however, are industrious and curious birds that at one time were well known for their milk-guzzling habits. When foil-topped milk bottles were regularly delivered throughout British communities in the early twentieth century, these ubiquitous songbirds quickly learned to peck through the foil caps to reach the fat-rich cream that floated to the top of the bottles.
While the blue tits weren’t actually drinking milk – they lack the digestive enzymes necessary to digest lactose in milk – the separated cream has little lactose and is energy-rich for hungry birds. Over time, blue tits even learned to recognize the different colors of the foil caps on milk bottles in order to take advantage of the bottles with the highest cream content.
Today, this phenomenon is rarely seen because milk deliveries are much less frequent, and the prevalence of low-fat and skim milk means much less cream for birds to sip even if they were to find the coveted bottles.
Time for Birding
Despite these fascinating connections between birds and milk, what about the maids? What exactly does maids a-milking have to do with birds?
The answer is a gift of luxury and time. This gift is one of service and assistance, of having someone else complete necessary chores to free up more time and energy for holiday celebrations rather than the monotonous slog of everyday to-dos. If the gift recipient were a birder, that could mean plenty of time for getting out and enjoying more birds, as it would not be necessary to spend as much time milking one’s cows. Milking a cow by hand (without an automated machine) takes approximately 20-30 minutes, and with eight maids to do the work, that’s easily a couple of hours or more to enjoy for leisure activities instead of chores.
With all that extra time during the holidays, what is a birder to do? It could be fun to search for the one bird species in the world with an official common name that includes milk – the milky stork (Mycteria cinerea). Of course, these are endangered wading birds found only in select regions of Cambodia, Singapore, and Malaysia, so one would certainly need help at home to take care of chores in order to plan the trip and time to seek out the milky stork.
Milk for the Holidays
Of course, it’s impossible to forget the strongest connection between milk and the holidays – a cool, delicious glass of milk to go with cookies for Santa. Whatever kind of milk you prefer or whatever cookies are your holiday favorites, that’s one holiday gift we can all enjoy – regardless of who does the milking!