what the heck IS a calling bird? aren’t all birds calling birds?
time for an etymology lesson!
turns out, the calling bird line in the 12 days of christmas song is a relatively new revelation. the line for 100+ years prior to its adoption was four COLLY birds.
the song was first published around 1780, which means it was probably a spoken poem or song long before that. and the first publications called the day four birds, colly/collie birds.
forget a calling bird – what the heck is a COLLY bird???
colly comes from old english for the cord coal – describing coal dust, the color of coal, etc. and in a 1565 translation of metamorphosis, here’s the line that described a raven:
as thou thou prating raven white by nature being bred, hadst on they fether justly late a coly colour spred.
but, where the four birds supposed to be ravens? more likely the colly bird in the song is supposed to be a blackbird.
BUT! the mystery doesn’t stop there. in the past, the line has also been four canary birds, four colored birds, and four curley birds. it’s even been a tole of birds?
good news bad news, though: in 1909, a tune was set in publication to the poem or song, and the calling birds were put in print. however, it took a while for it to catch on. it wasn’t until the mid 1900s that calling became the preferred word, and in the 1970s, it was the much more common word.
unfortunately, the calling bird is much more ambiguous than the colly bird! even the american ornithological society thinks it should be a colly bird. so let’s chalk this confusion up to frederic austin, whose musical arrangement we all now know, to not transcribing the song correctly.
and bring back the colly bird!