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On the Fourth Day of Christmas

Chuck enjoys celebrating holidays with his family. This has led to an interest in researching & writing about holidays & their traditions.

On the Fourth Day of Christmas...Four Calling Birds

In the discussion dealing with the Partridge in a Pear Tree in the first stanza of the song it was pointed out that the gift of a partridge in a pear tree may have come about because of a mix-up between French and English.

The Four Calling Birds in this stanza is due to a mix up between the English language as spoken in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the English spoken today. It could also be due to a mix up between English as spoken in England and English as spoken in England's former colonies, particularly the United States and Australia.

When they get to this stanza many people may wonder just what is a calling bird. Most probably just assume that it is the name used in past centuries for one of our common birds that goes by a different name today.


It's Colly Birds, Not "Calling Birds"

The verse, four calling birds, is actually a corruption of the English word colly or collie . So, we are referring to four colly birds or four collie bird s (the words to the song were probably written before the creation of the dictionary, so the spelling of old words tends to be flexible).

What is a colly bird? It is a black bird. In England a coal mine is called a colliery and colly or collie is a derivation of this and means black like coal. For a long time in England, blackbirds have been referred to as both blackbirds (as in the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence ) and colly birds as in The Twelve Days of Christmas .

Even in Tudor England these birds went by two different names so it is not so unusual that there would be some confusion three centuries and a couple of continents later.

While the name blackbird migrated beyond England, the name collie bird remained behind in England where, even there, it tended to diminish in use over the centuries. Today, many published versions of the song in the U.S. and Australia give the birds' name as calling birds rather than collie birds.

As to why the person in the song would give his true love a gift of blackbirds, the answer is that this would have been another gift of food. Blackbirds were plentiful and were a common food.

From the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence we see them being served as a meat pie and this may have been the way they were commonly served. In times past in Great Britain, pies were a convenient way to serve and eat a meal with the meat, potatoes and any vegetables all cooked together in an easy to handle crust (forks not having been invented at that time, table utensils consisted of knives, spoons and one's fingers).

It wasn't until the British began establishing colonies in what is now the United States that pies (at least in the United States) evolved from being a main course to being a desert.

  • On the First Day of Christmas
    Why a partridge in a pear tree? A partridge is not a small bird that can be easily placed in a cage in the kitchen. And the song pre-dates dwarf fruit trees so we are talking about a good sized tree which...
  • On the Second Day of Christmas
    Doves are a common symbol for love and peace, two Christmas themes. Turtle doves are a common species of dove found in France and England and they were often kept in cages as pets during the Middle Ages and...
  • On the Third Day of Christmas
    The three French Hens probably refer to a variety of chicken from France. There are many varieties of chicken and in the period during which this carol developed there were three main varieties of chickens...
  • On the Fifth Day of Christmas
    Unlike the four collie birds in the previous stanza who just had their name changed to a different, and non-existent, species of bird, the five rings in this stanza have, in singers' and illustrators' minds,...
  • On the Sixth Day of Christmas
    Geese were among the first birds to be domesticated. Our Neolithic ancestors discovered that, rather than spending days searching for animals to kill or nests to rob, it was easier to capture them live and...
  • On the Seventh Day of Christmas
    On the seventh day the lover sends seven swans. Throughout history swans have been associated with royalty and the swan is often used on royal symbols and other decorations. Swans are also found in myths...
  • On the Eighth Day of Christmas
    The eight maids a-milking addresses two of the major themes of fifteenth and sixteenth century English celebrations and parties during the Christmas holidays food and romance. What is a feast or...
  • On the Ninth Day of Christmas
    The nine ladies dancing evokes images of music and dancing which were a big part of the celebrations at this period of history in England. The term ladies probably refers to noble ladies as in a Lord and his...
  • On the Tenth Day of Christmas
    The ten lords a-leaping most likely refers to leaping dancers (called morris dancers) who performed leaping dances between courses at feasts. This type of wild and strenuous dancing probably evolved from...
  • On the Eleventh Day of Christmas
    At the big feasts held during the holiday celebrations the guests were often entertained by musicians, dancers, jugglers, etc. as well as singing and dancing themselves. Bagpipes and their younger cousins...
  • On the Twelfth Day of Christmas
    With the twelfth day we have reached the end of the song and have arrived at the last day of Christmas known as Twelfth Night on which the partying and feasting continued. Twelfth Night is the night before...

© 2006 Chuck Nugent


Lawrence Wilson on December 14, 2018:

Leave it to the British to come up with an odd word for "Blackbird." It's a good thing they kept the word at home.

Thanks for the interesting take.


Bobby Beeman on December 29, 2012:

Scroll to Continue

The 4 Colly birds evolved by devine intervention into Calling birds. It is in reference to the four Gospells calling out salvation to lost souls.

Pat in Ann Arbor,Mi. on December 20, 2012:

Or it might refer to the Coly(Mousebird) once widely distributed in Europe and the UK.

Meghan on December 08, 2011:

Are you sure about the birds?I mean most birds have a "bird call".So does it specifficly mean that one bird?

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on December 24, 2010:

Mary Lou - you are correct and thank you for pointing out this fact about starlings.

While a common nuisance in much of the eastern North America, starlings are not native to North America I remember reading somewhere that during the 19th century some individual in New York or one of the other eastern states who liked Shakespeare attempted import and release members of each species of bird that was not native to North America but mentioned in Shakespeare's plays. Starlings were among those he brought over and released and they thrived and became a common nuisance.

Thanks again


Mary Lou on December 23, 2010:

Blackbirds include starlings, which were kept as pets in England because of their singing.

Eanraig on December 15, 2010:

An interesting thought, and one I have heard repeated, however I would submit that Collie birds could refer to any small bird caught in the forest.

Coille is the genitive form of the Gaelic word coill and means a forest. Many small birds were given names such as

calman-coille - woodpigeon, corcan-coille - bullfinch, lasair-choille - goldfinch, and of course the famous bird of the Highland forests, the capull-coille (capercaille).

One fact is often overlooked among people that search for English origins of this song is that Christmas was not a major holiday in England during the time this song originated and in fact Christmas celebrations were outlawed by Cromwell during his reign. The origins of this song are in France and Scotland (The Auld Alliance) where Christmas celebrations were prolonged events with much rowdy celebrating and feasting.

To me assuming an origin of collie birds from English slang is as silly to me as some ignoring the Gaelic origin of the word Collie dog. English thought is that the word originates also from their slang for "black-colored" when in fact it originates from the word Callaidh which means "active, clever,quick and nimble" - all words that describe the breed. They will try to assign an origin to any European language except the one the breed originated in - a clear reminder of the racism and cultural snobbery inflicted upon the Gaelic speakers in the past.

VivekSri on July 09, 2010:

Great idol and good bird story. Would like to excavate more on this topic, thanks that your hub showed the way.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on December 18, 2009:

Carrie C. - thanks for the comment and for pointing out that fruit trees are not native to North America and what we have were brought here from Europe.

In my Hub "Cranberries – History and Recipes" ( ) I did point out that cranberries, blueberries and concord grapes were the only fruits native to North America.

Thanks again.


Carrie C. on December 18, 2009:

Good article, but I feel I should point out that there were, in fact, no real native fruit trees where the English landed in North America. Apples are actually native to Asia, but had been brought to Europe. Cranberries were native; hickory nuts were native. I'll have to check, but I think blueberries were native. Really, though, very little else would have been available to early English settlers in North America that they did not also have in England, and that they had not, in fact, brought with them.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on December 20, 2006:

Thanks for the comment, Ralph. I'm working on the pictures and hope to have them added, along with the remaining 7 days, soon. Between my regular job, grading finals for the evening classes I teach and Christmas shopping, my writing time has shrunk to about 40 minutes before breakfast in the morning. But I am glad people enjoy the articles.

Ralph Deeds from Birmingham, Michigan on December 20, 2006:

Great job on these hubs! A few pictures would help.

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