Dec 24 2010

Are you the “Partridge in a Pear Tree?”

Published by at 7:30 am under Beyond Bounds,Doves & Chickens

Red-legged partridge (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Twelve Days of Christmas repeats the refrain “A partridge in a pear tree.”  What species are they talking about?

The song comes from England, so shouldn’t the bird?  Unfortunately it’s more complicated than that.  The words were published in England in 1780 but they are older and probably French.  So the partridge could be either French or English.

Here’s a partridge that’s both:  The red-legged partridge is originally from France but was introduced in England in the 1770’s.

Now about the pear tree…

The gifts in the Twelve Days of Christmas are fantastic and extravagant.  (Imagine receiving eight maids-a-milking!)   “A partridge in a pear tree” is fantastic too because partridges are terrestrial birds who rarely perch above the ground.  But of all the partridges in England the red-legged partridge is the most likely to do it.

Despite this convincing argument musicologists say the pear tree might be an English mangling of the French word for partridge — perdrix.  In French the ending consonant is often silent. Say perdrix three times fast and it begins to sound like “pear tree.”

Are you the partridge in the perdrix?


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Are you the “Partridge in a Pear Tree?””

  1. Marianneon 24 Dec 2010 at 8:19 am

    I have always wondered what the partridge looked like! This is a great and appropriate post for Christmas Eve!

  2. Donnaon 24 Dec 2010 at 10:32 am

    I hope everyone gets their partridge this year. Happy Holidays to all!

  3. Margeon 24 Dec 2010 at 8:55 pm

    Great holiday article, Kate. I just learned recently that the words were code for Catholics years ago and someone gave me the entire list and what each meant.

  4. Bill Parkeron 25 Dec 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Kate –
    BirdNote covered the same subject. Listen at for their version.

  5. Mary DeVon 25 Dec 2010 at 6:25 pm

    Marge — Snopes says no.

    Oh well! Merry Christmas to all! Leah gave me a great binocular/camera combo — should be great for watching and recording our Oakland peregrine family 🙂

  6. John Huntingtonon 24 Mar 2011 at 10:39 pm

    I would like to know what kind of bird this is.

  7. Kate St. Johnon 24 Mar 2011 at 10:43 pm

    John, the bird in your photo is probably a chukar. Chukars are stocked in the U.S. as game birds.

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