“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…” I bet you’re already singing the next line: “a partridge in a pear tree!” The Twelve Days of Christmas is one of our best-known Christmas carols, even if its repetitive format does sometimes drive us round the bend.

But what of the partridge itself? When I was growing up on the edge of London, the grey partridge was, if not exactly common, a fairly regular sight. If I took a trip to East Anglia, they were ten a penny. Nowadays, I struggle to find them anywhere.

That’s because this classic farmland bird has declined by over 90% in the past 50 years: down from half a million pairs to fewer than 50,000. As with another species we sing about in the carol – the turtle dove – it’s the usual story. Our demand for cheap food, leading to more intensive farming, simply doesn’t allow room for this charismatic gamebird.

The image of the largely terrestrial partridge perched in a pear tree has always struck me as odd; and it seems that I was right. The ‘pear tree’ is actually a corruption of the French word for the species – perdrix, pronounced with a silent x, as pair-dree.

Stephen Moss’s latest book, The Twelve Birds of Christmas, is out now (Square Peg, £12.99) Buy through Guardian Bookshop for £11.43


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