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Festive Birds from the Booth Museum

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As a farewell to 2015, a final blog from the Booth Museum looks at some of the festive birds in the collections.

In a nod to the twelve days of Christmas, we start with the partridge. Despite the grey being our native bird, it’s likely the carol refers to the red legged partridge, which frequently perches in trees, unlike our more ground based bird. This is supported by the fact that the carol originates from France, where the red legged pertiridge is native to.

Sticking with the twelve days, we have a swan, but in this case a more exotic black swan. These swans are native to Australia and a subspecies was once found in New Zealand, until the arrival of humans. They were soon hunted to extinction, but in 1864, Australian birds were introduced as ornamental birds, and they have established breeding populations across the islands.

Moving on to a bird often featured on Christmas cards, the dove has long been a symbol of peace in Christianity. The dove is often depicted carrying an olive branch which comes from the story of Noah, and the dove returning with a fresh olive leaf proving the existence of land. However, in a similar story from the Epic of Gilgamesh, a dove is released to find land after the flood, but just circles and lands back on the boat. A raven is then released, and finds land.

Another bird commonly found on Christmas cards is the robin. This little bird is a year round native in Britain, and is a member of the flycatcher family. They are diurnal, and can been seen hunting for insects on moonlit nights. They are also generally unafraid of humans, and often forage around gardeners. Males are also aggressively territorial, and will attack any other male robins that stray into their territory. These attacks end in fatalities in 10% of encounters.

Finally, we move onto the birds most closely related to Christmas – those on the dinner table! Most commonly served up nowadays is the turkey. This large bird was introduced to Europe soon after the re-discovery of America by Columbus. They were probably named after the Turkish traders who first brought them to England, and in Turkey are known as Hindi, as they were brought to turkey by Indian traders.

Traditionally, it was roast goose which made up the centrepiece of the British Christmas dinner table, and domesticated geese are bred with fat rumps that provide more meat but make the birds unable to fly (and also give them their characteristic waddle). The domestic goose is descended from greylag geese, but the bird pictured is the bean goose, which is a rare migrant to Britain. Goose was gradually replaced as the favoured bird for Christmas with the increased availability of cheaper turkeys, which grew larger and provided more meat.

Merry Christmas, and see you in the New Year!

Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences