Thursday, December 28, 2006
Four "cawing" birds
Well, yes, it is just me that interprets the fourth day of Christmas verse this way (as far as I know), but the sources I mentioned earlier all seem to agree that it's not "calling" birds, anyway. They say it's really four "colly" birds, "colly" being an old English term for coal-black, or, as one English site put it, "Four ‘colly’ birds refers to an old name for the male Blackbird, whose black colour looked like someone who had been down a colliery." I take it that a "colliery" is a place where coal is stored.
The English Blackbird (always with a capital B, it seems, to distinguish it from any old black bird), is turdus merula, which means it's a type of thrush, and its nearest North American relative, say the Prices (cited in my first 12 Days of Christmas post, below), would be the robin (turdus migratorius). Which may "call" in its own way, but hardly fits the more authentic "colly" bird description. The Prices don't suggest an alternative, although Jim Williams, writing in the Strib (and also cited in the first 12 Days post), suggests a redwing blackbird as a substitute.
Well, I say, why not the good old American Crow? Besides, it allows me to play a little off the calling-colly-cawing descriptive. So here are my four cawing birds, which are also colly colored, so I figure they qualify. And they're plentiful here in the city!
Besides, some researchers say crows can even count to four. In The Universal History of Numbers (Harvill Press, 1998), author Georges Ifrah relates this story:
"The story goes that a squire wanted to destroy a crow that had made its nest in his castle's watchtower. Each time he got near the nest, the crow flew off and waited on a nearby branch for the squire to give up and go down. One day the squire thought of a trick. He got two of his men to go into the tower. After a few minutes, one went down, but the other stayed behind. But the crow wasn't fooled, and waited for the second man to go down too before coming back to his nest. Then they tried the trick with three men in the tower, two of them going down: but the third man could wait as long as he liked, the crow knew that he was there. The ploy only worked when five or six men went up, showing that the crow could not discrminate between numbers greater than three or four."
By the way, I came across a great essay by Mark Twain about crows (in India, but the description sure fits our crows here, too), if you care to read it, just go here.