Monthly Archives: December 2021

The Seventh Day of Christmas – Seven Swans A Swimming

Mute swan landing on the Grand Canal in Dublin (Photo by Steve H from Ireland)

Dear Readers, on the Seventh Day of Christmas the unfortunate lover has to find room in their already crowded house for no less than seven swans. Whilst  I always think that any water body is graced by the presence of swans, I’m not sure I’d want them in my living room, regarding me with a suspicious look and flapping at me every time I got up to make a cup of tea. The blooming geese are bad enough. However, I think that any body of water is much improved by the presence of these elegant, regal birds.  They manage to look regal and self-possessed even when taking off and landing, which is quite a feat. Have a look at the video below by Gary Saunders – this must be one of my favourites of 2021.

For most people, the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) is the swan that they’re most familiar with. The orange bill is a giveaway, as is the way that the Mute Swan often carries its head on an arched neck, unlike the straight neck of Bewick’s and Whooper swans. Mute swans are at the top end of the weight range for flying birds – there’s a trade off between weight and power when it comes to flying, and at a certain point, the weight of the muscles required to power the wings are too heavy for the bird to take off. Incidentally, although called ‘Mute’ swans, the wings themselves make a very distinctive noise in flight. This next recording really gives me the tingles. You can almost ‘see’ the swan flying over your head.

Both other swan species that we’re likely to see in the UK are migrants. Whooper swans arrive in Scotland, the north-east of England and Ireland in October from Iceland – it’s thought that they travel en masse over the North Atlantic and then disperse when they reach the British Isles.The distinctive feature of the  whooper swan is its voice. Some have described it as sounding like an old-fashioned car hooter, but  I think it’s rather wilder than that. Have a listen and see what you think. These are the calls of a group of swans on the ground….

And here they are in flight – my Crossley Guide says that whoopers often call three times while in flight, and that’s very evident here.

Bewick’s swans (also known as tundra swans) fly in from Siberia in the autumn, and can usually be seen on flooded fields, lakes and salt marshes. These are very localised birds, but the RSPB Slimbridge and Martin Mere reserves are good places to see them. These are our smallest swans, and Crossley suggests that they have a ‘mellow hooting call’, which is usually double rather than triple.


Now, how do you tell a whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) from a Bewick’s swan (Cygnus columbianus)? Both have yellow and black bills, but a Bewick’s swan is smaller and stockier than a whooper, and the patterns on the bills are different. On a whooper, the yellow reaches much further down the bill, and the bill itself is longer.

Head of a whooper swan (Photo by Wald1siedel)

Head of Bewick’s Swan (Photo by Jacob Spink)

The ID is, however, complicated by the fact that each swan actually has a distinctive beak pattern which can be used to identify it as an individual – I seem to remember that Peter Scott, the founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, kept a sketchbook with ‘portraits’ of all the swans who visited the reserve. These are long-lived birds that return again and again. How lovely to grow to know them as individuals.

Peter Scott’s illustrations of the Bewick’s swans that visited Slimbridge (Photograph by Martin Godwin for The Guardian)

The Guardian did a nice piece about Slimbridge’s 50th ‘Swanniversary’, and you can have a look here.

So, after Day Seven our song finally turns away from its theme of birds, and towards humans. However, I am allowing myself some latitude on the subject matter, as usual. Let’s see what ‘Eight Maids a-Milking’ will bring.


Below are some beautiful swans. I’m even going to tell you the species. But what continent are they from? Your choices are:

a) North America

b) Australasia

c) South America

1) Black Swan (Cygnus atratus)

2) Black-necked swan (Cygnus melanocoryphus)

3) Trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator)



The Sixth Day of Christmas – Six Geese A-Laying

Photo One by AnemoneProjectors (talk) (Flickr), CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Domestic Goose (Photo One)

Dear Readers, the sixth day of Christmas harks back to a time when it was a goose that would provide the centrepiece of the feast rather than a turkey. However, turkeys have been the bird of choice for rather longer than I expected – it’s said that Henry VIII was the first English monarch to eat turkey rather than goose, and they were apparently a popular choice in households from as early as 1573. However, goose was the bird of the day up until the Victorian era, and we can possibly blame Charles Dickens and ‘A Christmas Carol’ for finally sealing the fate of the goose as the bird du jour on Christmas Day – after all, it’s ‘the largest turkey in the shop’ that Scrooge provides for Bob Crachitt and family. You’d think the goose would breathe a sigh of relief, but there are still goose farms around the country. Close to Mum and Dad in Dorset there was a farm where we see all the fluffy goslings arrive in the spring and watch them mature until the beginning of December,  when the pond would be eerily empty except for a few feathers.

Geese have a reputation for being ferocious, and I can vouch for the way that the Canada Geese on Wanstead Flats used to terrorise me when I was a toddler. There I’d be, lovingly throwing crumbs to the adorable ducks, when a group of satanic black, honking, waddling birds would heave themselves menacingly out of the water and advance towards me, hissing. If I offered them a piece of bread they’d nearly take my fingers off – although those beaks look leathery they are full of sharp serrations, as they need to be for tearing up grass. Many a time I ended up flat on my backside in a slippery mess of goose poo and London clay, and it took me a while  to grow to admire them for their pugnaciousness. After all, these are big birds who need a lot of food. Once I was taller than they were they lost some of their ability to terrorise.

Canada goose in flight

However, one should never underestimate a goose. I once visited a City Farm in London with my then-boyfriend, who was 6 foot 8 inches tall. We no sooner came through the gate than a domestic goose started to advance towards us, fixing us with a steely stare and hissing. The goose had a condition called ‘angel wings’ which you might have seen in domestic fowl.

Photo Two by Cengland0, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

A duck with angelwing syndrome (Photo Two)

This is thought to be caused by poor diet in the early part of a bird’s life, especially lack of Vitamin E, though there might be a genetic component too. At any rate, this deformity had not improved the mood of the goose, and he had clearly been comfort-eating, as he looked like a white feathery basketball. One of the workers looked at the goose, looked at us, and said:

“Goosey doesn’t like tall people.”

Just as the words were uttered, the goose launched himself towards us with a speed surprising for such a stout animal. My boyfriend, heroically, turned and ran. I stood gawping as the goose raced past me, realised he wasn’t going to catch my boyfriend, did a handbrake turn and headed back towards me. Clearly, being 5 foot 11 inches tall was quite tall enough.

The goose went for my shins with the accuracy of a practised assailant. Suffice it to say that by the time I’d prised the bird off my leg I was bleeding and had the bruises for weeks. I also acquired a new boyfriend as soon as I was recovered enough to walk around and find one (there was no internet in those days so you couldn’t just order one up).

So I suppose the moral of the story is to never underestimate a goose. The sacred geese of Juno did, after all, save the Republic of Rome from the Gallic hordes back in 390 BC by cackling and hissing when the invaders tried to break into the city. Maybe the invaders were all tall people.

But geese also have their exalted moments. I remember watching them when I was working in Dundee, great skeins of them against a troubled, murky sky, and I remember how  the people hurrying home from work would turn to look at them, and sometimes give a great, shuddering sigh, as if the sight had jolted them out of their heads and into the here and now. Here, as a special treat, is Mary Oliver reading her poem ‘Wild Geese’. I hope you enjoy it.

Question Six

Can you put a name to these fine geese? Just match the name to the photo.

a) Pink-footed goose

b) Brent goose

c) Bar-headed goose

d) Greylag goose

e) Barnacle goose

f) Greater white-fronted goose

For a bonus point – which of these geese has been spotted from a plane while flying over the Himalayas?

Photo Three by Diliff, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Two by Hobbyfotowiki, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Five by Leon van der Noll from


Photo Six by By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,


Photo Seven by Ryanx7, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons





The Fifth Day of Christmas – Five Gold Rings

Photo One by By © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, you might have thought that once we got to the fifth day of Christmas we have a (brief) break from all those birds that have been given as presents previously. After all, a gold ring never goes amiss, and five would be plenty to adorn at least 25% of one’s available digits. Alas, things are never so clear cut in the world of folksongs, and several commentators think that the fifth day also refers to yet more birds. Where would one find the room for all these critters? And we haven’t even got on to the swans and the geese yet.

William Baring-Gould was by trade a Sherlock Holmes expert, but he turned his forensic eye on the Twelve Days of Christmas and announced that the ‘five gold rings’ actually referred to the five golden rings of the ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus). But what are these ‘five gold rings’ of which Baring-Gould speaks? The ring around the neck of the bird is white, and as far as I know there is no golden variety of this actual species. Maybe he is just referring to five pheasants, which would indeed carry on the theme of creatures that flap and peck very nicely.

Photo Two by By Charles J. Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography,, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Common or ring-necked pheasant (Photo Two)

Another theory is that it isn’t ‘five gold rings’, but ‘five goldspinks’. A goldspink is the old name for a goldfinch, and these have been very popular cage birds for centuries (until taking them from the wild was banned in the UK and the European Union in 1979. Previous to this, finches of several kinds were crossbred with canaries, to produce ‘mules’, birds with attractive colouration and pretty singing voices. This is now only legal if both parent birds were bred in captivity, and any offspring have to be ringed at 5-6 days old. Taking birds from the wild is illegal.

Photo Three by By Sergi tgn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Goldfinch/canary hybrid (Photo Three)

However, both of these theories are somewhat knocked out of the park by the illustration in the 1780 edition of the words of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which shows this:

Five Gold Rings for sure…

That looks awfully like jewellery to me….

And here is a very appropriate song to celebrate the day – give a big hand to Freda Payne and ‘Band of Gold’….

Question Five

Can you name these five ‘golden’ UK birds?

Photo Four by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

1) (Photo Four)

Photo Five by Jarkko Järvinen, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

2) (Photo Five)

Photo Six by By Michel Idre from Plaisance du Touch, France - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

3) (Photo Six)

Photo Seven by By -, CC BY 2.0,

4) (Photo Seven)

Photo Eight by By Andrej Chudý from Slovakia - Kulík zlatý (Pluvialis apricaria)_a, CC BY-SA 2.0,

5) (Photo Eight)

Photo Credits

Photo One By © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by By Charles J. Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography,, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Three By Sergi tgn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by Jarkko Järvinen, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by By Michel Idre from Plaisance du Touch, France – Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Seven by, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Eight by By Andrej Chudý from Slovakia – CC BY-SA 2.0,

The Fourth Day of Christmas – Four Calling Birds

Photo One by Stuutje1979, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Blackbird (Turdus merula) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, when I get to day four of the Twelve Days of Christmas, I always feel a little confused. What the deuce is a ‘calling bird’? Well, in the 1780 version of the song it’s not ‘calling birds’ at all, it’s ‘colly birds’. The plot thickens. However! ‘Colly’ comes from the same root as ‘coal’, and means ‘black in colour’ – the sheep dog breed ‘collie’ probably has the same derivation. Does this mean that collies were originally all black, I wonder?

At this time, only small birds were called ‘birds’; anything larger, such as a crow, was known as   a ‘fowle’. By the process of elimination, the only purely black bird that the song could be referring to us was a blackbird, and I am left wondering if they were being given on the fourth day of Christmas as cage birds, because of their melodious song, or as dinner, as in the nursery rhyme ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie’. Certainly thrushes are still eaten in various parts of Europe, so I fear the latter. However, for me, the blackbird is one of the main ways that I can hear what’s going on in the garden. If I hear this, for example, I know that something untoward is going on, probably some cat hidden in the lilac bush, so I need to go outside and wave my arms around for a bit.

However, on the wonderful Xeno-Canto website, I see that blackbirds have different alarm calls for different dangers. First up, a blackbird alerting the neighbourhood to the presence of a pygmy owl (which you can also here hooting).

But how about this one, which was given because a cat was in the garden? I have a suspicion that this one makes the giver of the call less obvious – I’ve certainly heard a blackbird giving small ‘anxiety calls’ from a nearby shrub and have found it really difficult to identify exactly where the sound was coming from.

But the real glory of the blackbird is its territorial song, usually given from the highest tree or TV aerial in the territory at the close of the day. There is a theory that if a blackbird doesn’t sing for more than a week, another male blackbird will consider the territory vacant and will move in.

There is a full eight minutes of fluty song on this recording. Just the thing to remind us of the glories of spring.

Incidentally, as we know, not all blackbirds are black – females and juveniles are brown and sometimes speckled.

Photo Two by Jacob Spinks from Northamptonshire, England, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Juvenile blackbird (Photo Two)

First winter males are largely black, but often have brown primary feathers, and their beaks are not yet completely yellow.

Photo Three by Frode Falkenberg from

First winter male blackbird (Photo Three)

Blackbirds also seem to have a disproportionate number of leucistic birds, i.e. birds with some white feathers. I spotted this one at Camley Street Natural Park in Kings Cross a few weeks ago, and had some trouble convincing the other observers that it was, in fact, a blackbird.

Blackbird with a touch of albinism

I would be remiss in leaving the subject of the ‘four calling birds’ without a song. So here is ‘Blackbird’ by The Beatles, sung by Paul McCartney. There is something about the simplicity of this song that gets me every time. Plus it includes a real blackbird.

And so, blackbirds are those ubiquitous garden birds that in my view we don’t appreciate quite enough. And it seems that everywhere in the world has a ‘blackbird’ that makes up for its dullness in colour with its strength of character or song. Which leads us on to today’s question….

Question Four

Can you match the name of the ‘blackbird’ to the photo?

a) Common Raven

b) Ring Ouzel

c) Red-winged Blackbird

d) Great-tailed Grackle

Photo Four by By Walter Siegmund (talk) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

1) (Photo Four)

Photo Five by Sahid Martin Robles Bello, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

2) (Photo Five)

Photo Six by Copetersen, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

3) (Photo Six)

Photo Seven by By Paco Gómez -, CC BY-SA 2.0,

4) (Photo Seven)

Photo Credits

Photo One by Stuutje1979, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Jacob Spinks from Northamptonshire, England, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by Frode Falkenberg from

Photo Four by By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Five by Sahid Martin Robles Bello, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by Copetersen, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by By Paco Gómez –, CC BY-SA 2.0,


Here are the links to the first three days of the quiz, in case you’ve missed them…

The First Day of Christmas &#8211; A Partridge in a Pear Tree

The Second Day of Christmas &#8211; Two Turtle Doves

The Third Day of Christmas &#8211; Three French Hens

The Third Day of Christmas – Three French Hens

Photo One by User:Aleks, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Bresse gauloise hen (Photo One)

Dear Readers, when we get to ‘Three French Hens’ the thoughts of the singers are turning to dinner, and it’s no surprise that in some versions of the song, it’s ‘Three Fat Hens’ rather than French ones. But let’s stick with the French fowl. The Latin name for the domestic chicken is Gallus gallus, the Roman name for France was Gaul and one of the symbols of France is the rooster, so it seems that the bird has been associated with France in the British mind for generations. The Bresse chicken (pictured above) is seen as ‘the’ French breed, as it has blue legs, a white body and a red comb, the three colours of the French flag.

Even today French chickens are seen as being extremely desirable eating – Michelin chefs and Waitrose turn to Bresse hens when they want to impress. The first recorded reference to the breed was in 1591, and as the Twelve Days of Chrismas as a song seems to have originated in the North of England in around 1700, this could well be ‘our’ bird. The gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) referred to the breed as ‘the Queen of poultry, the poultry of Kings’, so I suspect that Three French Hens would have been a most suitable gift for day three, a sign of no expense spared and of the abundance that the whole song seems to celebrate.

The chicken has gone, in my lifetime, from being a treat once or twice a year to being the most ubiquitous, cheap meat. This has come at a terrible price for most of the birds: chickens were the first animals to be intensively reared, and I don’t want to dampen your Christmas cheer with tales of what that entails. However,  I well remember watching the chickens in Cameroon – they roamed the village and the chimpanzee sanctuary that I was working in, and it gave me a chance to observe what they were like as birds. We would scatter a few breadcrumbs after breakfast in the morning, and one of the cockerels would find the food and then utter a few small calls to his ‘ladies’. He would then stand by proudly while they pecked everything up, having done his duty as provider. On another occasion, a hen was menaced by a snake and I was amazed to see all the other hens piling in to chase the snake away. When the cockerel realised what was going on he galloped across to join the affray. The variety of personalities amongst this small group of animals was so interesting – if you’ve had a chance to observe chickens (maybe you’ve had a smallholding, or are keeping chickens for their eggs) do share your stories!

Bresse chickens (Photo Two)

Of course, the chickens in the village were sometimes eaten on high days and holidays – however, one of the women would grab a chicken by the legs and cut its throat in a matter of seconds. If I was a chicken I’d clearly rather not have my throat cut at all, but if I was destined for the pot, I’d much rather have lived out my days pottering around with my flock than stuck in a cage the size of a tabloid newspaper.

And as a special Christmas present to all of us, have a listen to this. If this doesn’t get you lindy-hopping around the kitchen I don’t know what will.

Question Three

Here are three pictures of French breeds of domestic animal. Can you match the photo to the name?


a) Baudet du Poitou

b) Percheron

c) Bleue du Nord

Photo One by Par Carnage 2000 — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Photo Two by By Sudorculus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Photo Three by Eponimm, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


The Second Day of Christmas – Two Turtle Doves

European Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur)

Dear Readers, the presence of this bird in the song The Twelve Days of Christmas is another puzzle, as even when turtle doves were common in the UK, they were only here from April to September, preferring to winter around the Mediterranean or in North Africa. Alas, they are another bird that has declined in the UK, due to a combination of, firstly, intensive agriculture: turtle doves feed on the seeds and shoots of many ‘weeds’, especially fumitory, and these are usually herbicided (new verb :-)) to extinction. Secondly, they are shot as they fly over many European countries (Malta, I’m glaring at you). Thirdly, climate change is impacting on the timing of their migration and the availability of food en route. And finally, they may be in competition with the increasingly common collared dove for the same limited resources. Turtle doves are much shyer than the collared doves which are all over my garden, and need much more specialised habitat.

However, all is not lost – experiments in rewilding at the Knepp Castle estate in Sussex have managed to increase the number of singing male turtle doves from 3 in 1999 to 17 in 2017, which shows that with careful and sympathetic habitat management, and with patience, species can be encouraged to return even from a very low number. Fingers crossed that their success continues.

The film below gives you the sound of turtle doves at Knepp and lots of other creatures as well, including some very noisy marsh frogs.

So, here’s our question for today.

Question Two

Why are turtle doves called turtle doves?

The First Day of Christmas – A Partridge in a Pear Tree

Dear Readers, first of all, happy Christmas to those of you who are celebrating! Thank you for your support, comments, contributions and general wonderfulness this year. You are an amazing bunch, and I wish you everything that you’d hope for for yourselves.

Now, what is all this about a partridge in a pear tree? For a start, partridges are ground birds, and so most unlikely to be sitting in a tree of any kind. And why a pear tree, which at this time of year would be devoid of fruit or blossom or leaves. So first, let’s look at the bird.  We have two species in the UK, the increasingly rare grey partridge (Perdix perdix), which has declined by 94% in Europe over the past four decades, largely due to more intensive agriculture, and the use of pesticides which kill off the insects that the partridge chicks need to thrive.

Photo One by Frank Vassen from

Grey partridge (Perdix perdix) (Photo One)

However, in many areas it has been replaced by the red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufawhich was introduced to the UK from mainland Europe as a game bird (presumably as the grey partridge became rarer, there needed to be something for the usual suspects to shoot). This is a slightly larger bird, and interestingly this is the one shown on the Christmas card at the top of the post, not the native species. I imagine that gradually when someone says ‘partridge’, this is what people will think of.

Photo Two by Lynne Kirton / Red-legged partridge with chicks

Red-legged partridge with chicks (Photo Two)

However, neither of these birds is particularly likely to be in a pear tree, so what’s going on? The most likely explanation I’ve heard is that the song is a misinterpretation of the Norman French name for the bird, which is Perdrix – you can imagine that being heard as ‘per-dree’, and the rest could well be history.

How about pear trees, though? The domestic pear tree (Pyrus communis) is also an introduction,  though it probably arrived over a thousand years ago, and has since made itself at home in hedgerows and woodland margins all over the country. An individual tree can live for up to a thousand years (if not cut down for HS2 like the Cubbington pear) and in China they are considered to be a symbol of immortality. Though unlikely to be harbouring any partridges of either species, the pear tree is extremely valuable for wildlife, from the blackbirds and other thrushes who feast on the fruit to the wide variety of caterpillars who munch on the leaves. The blossom is wonderful too, and if you are thinking about a small tree for the garden, you could do much worse.

Photo Three by Sten Porse, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Pear blossom (Photo Three)

So lovely readers, as promised yesterday, here is our first question. Don’t forget, submit your answers in the comments after the Twelve Days of Christmas are finished (the last question will be on the 5th of January, and you will have until 5 p.m. on Friday 7th January to post your response).

Question One

What is the link between today’s post and this lot?

Photo Credits

Photo One by Frank Vassen from 

Photo Two by Lynne Kirton / Red-legged partridge with chicks

Photo Three by Sten Porse, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

6.30 a.m. – A Reminder

Dad December 2017 (post nap, before G&T)

Dear Readers, I published this last year just before Christmas, and I wanted to publish it again because I know this is not an easy time for many of us. We are still in the midst of a pandemic, trying to decide what to do for the best and how to weigh up the competing needs of those close to us. I am nearly two years an orphan, but some days it feels as if I lost Mum and Dad just a few moments ago. And I know that for some of us, this will be our first Christmas without someone that we love. I see you. Wishing you peace, and grace. 

Dear Readers, it’s 6.30 a.m. on a Saturday morning and I’m sitting in the office, listening to the thin, sweet song of a robin. Outside it’s still dark as pitch, but a runner has trudged past, taking advantage of the quiet street to jog up the middle of the road. And I have been thinking about Christmas, and how different it will be this year, not just for me but for many of us. This is my first Christmas as an orphan, and the idea is taking some getting used to.

Until a few years ago, the weeks before Christmas were frantically busy for me as I tried to get everything in place for Mum and Dad’s visit. We already had the stairlift so that they could get upstairs, but there was the commode and the reclining chair to get, the temporary registration of the pair of them with my doctor, not to mention the food and the presents and the cleaning. The wheelchair had to be rented and popped into the hall, ready for action. The night before they arrived I would be nervously eyeing up everyone who parked outside our house – we don’t have a car, but it’s a long tradition that you can ‘save’ a parking space by popping a couple of wheelie bins into the road, and with Mum and Dad unable to walk very far it could save a lot of worry.

And then they’d arrive, usually driven down by my brother, and the work would really begin. Everything had to be perfect, of course, just as it had to be perfect when Mum used to be in charge. I wonder why I didn’t learn from the way that she often had a migraine on Christmas Day from sheer stress? I remember one day when Mum was in a particular tizzy about something. Dad was sitting in the armchair with a purple paper hat slightly askew on his head, a gin and tonic in one hand and the cat on his lap.

‘Syb’, he said, patting the chair next to him, ‘Just come and sit down for Gawd’s sake. The brussel sprouts can wait for half an hour’.

‘No they can’t!’ she said, and burst into tears.

And so by the time Christmas was over, Mum was worn to a bit of a frazzle. So maybe it’s no surprise that I remember the days after the big event with particular fondness – the days of eating cold turkey, hot potatoes and pickle, playing Trivial Pursuit and watching the obligatory James Bond film with Dad.

And, strangely enough, it’s not the big things that I remember about the Christmases that I hosted either.

It’s the afternoons when Mum and Dad both had a doze, Dad in his recliner, Mum on the sofa, both of them snoozing along peacefully.

It’s the morning that the great spotted woodpecker turned up on the feeder and I gave Mum my binoculars so that she could see him properly.

It’s the night that the International Space Station went by on Christmas Eve, and Mum and I watched it go sailing past.

This year will be the first Christmas in a long, long time where I don’t have anywhere to go, or anyone apart from my husband to cater for. I am lucky to have him, I know.

The losses pile up, and the difference between the Christmas gatherings on the television advertisements and my quiet, subdued bittersweet Christmas could not be starker.

But I know that I am not alone – for so many of the people reading this, there will be an empty space at the Christmas table that can never be filled. And so this is to say that I see you, and I’m holding you in my heart. Grief is the tax that we pay for loving people deeply, but  bereavement is a bitter path to walk, and attention must be paid to what we’re feeling at this time if we’re to bear it. There is a time for distraction, and a time for weeping, and only you will know which you need at any given time, but my advice would be to make room for both.

And unlike so many, many people, I don’t have agonising choices to make about who to see and how. I have not spent the year worrying myself sick about elderly relatives that I can’t see, children who haven’t been able to go to school, or who have gone and then been sent home because of a Covid outbreak. I’m still in work, and still housed. I see you too, trying to make this very different Christmas work because other people are depending on you. Please be kind to yourselves. The brussel sprouts will wait for thirty minutes while you have a cup of tea and watch something ridiculous on the television.

Outside there’s the slightest hint of a lightening sky, and the robin has stopped singing, duty done for another morning. In a few days time we’ll reach the winter solstice, the longest night for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, and the light will gradually come back, until one day we wake up at our usual time and hear the dawn chorus, not a solitary robin. The world turns whether we want it to or not, the bulbs are already starting to stretch and yawn in their loamy beds and life will carry on. Let’s take things both lightly and with deep seriousness, with a sense of fun and with a sense that what we do matters, because it does, more now than ever.

‘Tree with a robin’ drawn by Dad December 2019



Sunday Quiz – Christmas Trivia – The Answers!

Photo One from

(Photo One)

Dear Readers, the quiz was a tie this week, with Claire and Fran and Bobby Freelove both getting 7 out of 10, so well done to Claire, Fran and Bobby, and thank you to everyone for playing the quizzes so diligently all year. 

Now, for Christmas this year I am trying something different. Every day between Christmas Day and January 5th, I am going to do a post on the general theme of the Twelve Days of Christmas (though some days will be more closely related to the song than others). Every day, there will be one related question (though I reserve the right to do multiple parts 🙂 ). I will post the links to previous days every day too, so you don’t have to interrupt your Christmas pudding or New Year champagne to have a go. On Twelfth Night (5th January) I will do a recap of the whole quiz.

You will have until January 7th to complete the quiz, and I would like you to post all your answers at once after the final quiz on January 5th, rather than day by day, just to make things a bit simpler to keep track of. 

So, thinking caps on! We start on Christmas Day!

Question One

This is a wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

Question Two

What sex is this holly bush?

This is female – only female bushes bear berries (holly has separate male and female plants)

Holly berries by the River Lagan by Albert Bridge

Question Three

If you saw this bee buzzing about in the autumn, which Christmassy plant is likely to be nearby?

This is an ivy bee (Colletes hedarae) so I would expect there to be some flowering ivy nearby.

Photo by Charles Sharp

Question Four

The world record for the number of brussels sprouts eaten in one minute is held by Linus Urbanec of Sweden. How many did he eat?

31, each one eaten raw and picked up with a cocktail stick.

Question Five

Which popular Christmas vegetable was so liked by the Roman Emperor Tiberius  that he accepted it as part of the tribute paid to Rome by Germany?

The parsnip.

Question Six

Why is a robin called a ‘red breast’ when it’s actually closer to the colour orange?

Because the word for ‘orange’ only appeared in the English Language in 1502, and wouldn’t become popular as a description of the colour until the 1570s when William of Orange came to power in Europe. Before this, many orange things were either called ‘red’ or ‘reddish-yellow’.

Question Seven

Which unfortunate bird was hunted on St Stephen’s Day in Ireland and on the Isle of Man until recent times?

The wren

Question Eight

What Christmas animal makes this sound?

The reindeer – the clicks are tendons in the animals’ legs’.

Question Nine

Which is the only nut (much loved at Christmas) that contains significant amounts of Vitamin C?

The chestnut

Question Ten

And finally, which Christmas bird is making these sounds (and why are you unlikely to hear them these days?)

The grey partridge (Perdix perdix), which has declined in numbers and is now on the RSPB’s red list for endangered birds.

A Christmas Crow

Dear Readers, when we say ‘crow’ we usually think of an all-black corvid, such as a jackdaw or a carrion crow. But the family also includes some very brightly coloured birds, including this Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius). Beginning birdwatchers sometimes mistake these birds for rollers, a mostly southern European and African bird. Well, the colours are similar, and I can well imagine the excitement involved.

Photo One by By Adam John Bourke - Adam John Bourke, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudatus) (Photo One)

However, Eurasian jays are quite interesting enough in their own right. Their species name, glandarius, means ‘of acorns’, and this is the bird’s main food during the autumn – it buries thousands during an average year, which helps to spread oak forests as some of the seeds will germinate if the bird doesn’t eat them first. In fact, jays are credited with the creation of the UK’s largest holm oak forest, in the Isle of Wight. A jay has been recorded carrying a single acorn for 20 km, and the birds are thought to have been a major contributor to the spread of oaks northwards after the last Ice Age.  This year has been a bad one for acorns, however, after last year’s extraordinary crop, so the birds are thrown back on their own resources. I have put out some peanuts in the hope of helping them out, though so far squirrels and parakeets have been the main beneficiaries. The bird in the photo, however, was looking most quizzically at the gutters of the houses opposite, probably in the hope of spotting some over-wintering insect.

Garrulus‘, the genus name, means ‘chattering/babbling/noisy’, and all jays are very talkative birds. They will sometimes mimic the calls of other birds, especially birds of prey, and the racket in the cemetery during the autumn is really something to hear. Just to give you the picture, here is a recording of the calls of a jay…

And here is a jay singing, something I’ve never heard. It sounds like a cross between a muppet and a viper, but is presumably sweet music to a lady jay.

Jays breed only once a year, and they form firm partnerships, essential as the fledglings are fed by both parents for up to two months after they leave the nest. One way that this pair-bond is cemented was illustrated by this study, which showed that male jays notice the food preferences of their mates, and will then bring them the food that they most enjoy – the male will feed the female during the courtship period. The more that we find out about these birds, the more I think that we underestimate them. Or maybe we just don’t have the time to notice? I am hoping to spend a bit more time noticing over the next few weeks, while I’m not working or otherwise filled with busyness. I wonder what I’ll see?

Photo and Sound Credits

Photo One By Adam John Bourke – Adam John Bourke, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Jay calls from

Jay song from