Look! Look! Only two of my paper December TBR to read and I’ve got a whole week more to do that (I do have a sneaky extra line-up for Christmas Day reading, too). I know that really I could have read this between Christmas and Twelfth Night but it’s done now and here’s my review of another excellent Stephen Moss book (I’ve previously enjoyed “A Bird in the Bush” and this uses some of the same busy research and delving into the history of our relationship with birds as that book). Our friend Linda originally gave Matthew this book for Christmas a couple of years ago, but I snaffled it at some point to put on my TBR, probably for last Christmas, when I overegged my Christmas TBR pudding and didn’t get it read!

Stephen Moss – “The Twelve Birds of Christmas”

(borrowed from Matthew)

So, next time you stand in a church, school or on a doorstep, and begin to sing that famous opening line, ‘On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me …’, spare a thought for the grey partridge, turtle dove, chicken, blackbird, yellowhammer, goose, swan, nightjar, crane, black grouse, sandpiper and woodpecker – the twelve very special birds of Christmas … (p. 211)

In this jolly seasonal read, Moss takes the well-known Christmas carol and, where birds aren’t mentioned in the lines, slightly shoehorns other birds in, but in a charismatic and cheeky way so you don’t think he’s just trying to cash in on the season. Obviously partridges and French hens, swans and calling/colly birds make an appearance, but as soon as I saw nightjar down for Eight Maids a-Milking I knew it was for its nickname and old accusation of sucking goats’ milk. So they all have a connection, nicely made, and then we’re into the meat of the chapter.

Each chapter describes the appearance, biology and habits of the bird in question, then goes back into the history of its name and humans’ relationship with it and some bits and bobs of writing, both from naturalists and poets/novelists. There are also a couple of interesting illustrations for each – black-and-white woodcuts etc., with colour illustrations on the attractive cover. The only slight criticism I’d have is that there are no footnotes or references, so although he’s careful to, for example, give poets’ and poems’ names, it’s not hugely easy to track them down at once. But that’s a minor point.

It’s interesting that we look at birds in decline (turtle doves in particular) and those that are flourishing (blackbirds, with their ability to adapt to garden life, and mute swans, which are spreading north and even encountering whooper swans in the Shetlands, who are spreading south). Changes in agricultural methods and global warming are discussed as negatively affecting bird populations; individual campaigners, rewilding projects and reintroduction projects as having positive effects, and it’s important to get a balance in a gifty sort of book like this.

My favourite anecdote is this, about the sandpiper, in a discussion about the folk names it has:

The redoubtable William MacGillivray, an eccentric Scotsman who attempted – and spectacularly failed – to persuade his fellow Victorians that they should standardise the English names of birds, proposed renaming this species ‘the White-breasted Weet-weet’, which certainly does what it says on the tin. (p. 183)

A very nice read, seasonal but also readable at other times, full of interesting facts and details.


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Book 27/85 – 58 to go (possibly: as I said on my last post, I’m not particularly sure I have this right any more and will check at the end of the month!)