Stephen Moss Reading – ‘Nightjar’ from 12 Birds of Christmas

European Nightjar, by Gisela Gerson Lohman-Braun (via Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 2.0, no changes made)

For what was to be the original finale of Nightjar Nights, we are delighted to be able to share this exclusive video reading by acclaimed author, producer and birdwatcher, Stephen Moss. Taken from his book, The 12 Birds of Christmas, in this reading Stephen explores the nightjar’s place in folklore, nature writing, and beyond. We are also pleased to announce that Nightjar Nights is being extended beyond its original finale date – and we are welcoming two new pieces to the website on Sunday and Monday evening! Check back, as usual, at 8pm for more.

In the interest of accessibility, we are making video transcripts available for each of our works. You can download the full text here:

Note from the Author

This reading comes from my book The Twelve Birds of Christmas, published by Square Peg (2019). The Nightjar is perhaps the most unusual bird to be featured in the book – and is one of five species for which I have speculated about their presence in the well-known Christmas carol.

Birds certainly dominate the first few verses of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’: not just that oddly arboreal ‘partridge in a pear tree’, but also ‘two turtle doves’ and ‘three French hens’. ‘Four colly birds’ is a bit of a mystery, though in fact refers to blackbirds – because of their ‘coaly’ (i.e. black) plumage. But what about ‘five gold rings’? It is natural to assume that this refers to jewellery, but it has been claimed that the line is also about blackbirds (which have a gold ring around their eye), or even pheasants (a white ring around their neck). In fact, with a little detective work, I soon realised that the phrase ‘gold rings’ is a corruption of ‘yoldring’ – a now obsolete Scottish folk-name for the yellowhammer. ‘Six geese-a-laying’ and ‘seven swans-a-swimming’ appear to be the only other avian gifts – but are they?

Birds could also be represented in at least two other verses (drummers drumming and pipers piping – woodpeckers and sandpipers respectively); while for the remaining three (lords-a-leaping, ladies dancing and maids a-milking), I have come up with what I believe to be plausible explanations for an ornithological origin.

For ‘lords-a-leaping’ I chose black grouse, whose males gather for a daily ritual in a ‘lek’ – an arena where they dance and posture to one another in an attempt to impress the watching females. Likewise, ‘ladies dancing’ could refer to cranes, as both the males and females dance in their own, more egalitarian, courtship ritual. Because both sexes look, to my mind, rather like posh Victorian ladies wearing a bustle, I have chosen them for this verse.

‘Maids-a-milking’ was, I must admit, more problematic. Several friends suggested blue tits, for their (now also obsolete) habit of pecking holes in the tops of doorstep milk bottles to drink the cream. But when I remembered that by far the most widespread folk-name for the nightjar is ‘goatsucker’, I decided to link the ‘maids-a-milking’ with this elusive, mysterious and wonderfully charismatic bird. I’m rather glad I did…

About the Author

Stephen Moss is one of Britain’s leading nature writers, broadcasters and wildlife television producers. Now living on the Somerset Levels, he was born in London, and read English at Cambridge before joining the BBC. His TV credits include the BAFTA award-winning Springwatch, The Nature of Britain and Birds Britannia, while his books include Wild Hares and Hummingbirds, Wild Kingdom and The Robin: A Biography. He also authored the National Trust’s 2012 ‘Natural Childhood’ report on reconnecting children with nature. He writes a regular monthly ‘Birdwatch’ column for the Guardian, is President of the Somerset Wildlife Trust, and teaches an MA in Travel and Nature Writing at Bath Spa University. A lifelong naturalist, Stephen has travelled to all seven of the world’s continents in search of wildlife. 

We are extending Nightjar Nights! We are back on the website on Sunday and Monday at 8pm with two brand new works, the first a poetic written piece from Jane Adams. See you tomorrow!

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