On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me … four calling birds, right? That's what we sing, but the original version of the song says “colly birds.” Which raises the question, what’s a colly bird, and what does a colly bird have to do with Christmas? Colly derives from coal, meaning coal-covered. A blackbird, in other words.
So for our four calling birds, we nominate the red-winged blackbird. There are other potential nominees, crows, for example, or grackles, but red-winged blackbirds, with their bright red epaulets are simply more festive, Christmasy if you will. And their song is much more pleasing to our ears.
Why blackbirds? They don’t seem to have any particular theological significance to the Christmas story, so for the answer, we go back to the original interpretation of the 12 Days as a secular Christmas song. Blackbirds simply tasted good to the 18th century palate. You might recall the children's rhyme about four and 20 blackbirds sitting in a pie.
The 12 Days of Christmas probably originated in France as a memory game of sorts. You sang the song, and if you made a mistake reciting its 12 verses, you had to give your partner a favor, a kiss for example. The song had numerous versions — as we noted above, the original had colly birds, but other variations included curley birds, canary birds and colored birds.
In the early 20th century Englishman Frederic Austin published his version of the song, the one we sing today, and he used calling birds.
A quick aside: Walter Montgomerie, in an article written for the American Ornithological Society, notes that six of the first seven verses of the song are bird themed. And all were considered good eats. The exception, of course, is the fifth verse and the “five golden rings,” which appears in both the original and modern version. Montgomerie says it’s likely this too is a bird reference, either to ring-necked pheasants or more probably to European goldfinches, which were called “goldspinks” back in the day. Goldfinches were caged birds, not food, however.
So how tasty would a red-winged blackbird be on a Christmas table? We don’t care to find out. Beside’s they’re protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.