Pamelia and I were watching a profile of artist Walton Ford, who often paints dark, humorous, exceptional watercolors of birds (and other wildlife) in the style of John James Audubon. The show mentioned passenger pigeons—the most egregious example of humans' ability to wipe out a seemingly unextinguishable species (billions of birds shot and killed both for the sheer joy of it and to serve a large demand for—I am not making this up—hog feed, fertilizer and meals for slaves). But what I thought I saw was a flash of sketch-and-writing that suggested that passenger pigeons and turtle doves were one and the same. They're not, and I'm sure I saw it wrong, but—this being the season of the 12 Days of Christmas—it made me curious about turtle doves and mathematics.
You're about to get a chance to test your skill at arithmetic.
First, turtle doves. The ones mentioned in the song (which is of English or French origin) would have been European turtle doves, small birds whose numbers have been plummeting because of hunters' bullets and the elimination (through herbicides and "improved" farming practices) of the weeds and weed seeds they feed on. Yes, weeds actually are important part of the eco-system—a fact rarely mentioned in Roundup ads.
At holiday time, assuming "my true love" is in England, turtle doves would be hard to come by. Never mind that in the land of Shakespeare, who celebrated them, the birds are especially scarce. (Check out http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/bird-symbolising-true-love-fading-from-the-skies-2031294.html) The surviving ones migrate to the Mediterranean area for the winter.
Perhaps some London pigeons could suffice as substitutes. But how many?
You have to take the song literally, at least as I see it. That means, on day one, your true love gives you a partridge in a pear tree. Day two, he/she gives you "two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree." Do the math: You now have two partridges and two pear trees as well as two turtle doves. Day three? Add "three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree." Your increasingly crowded living room now contains three partridges, three pear trees, four turtle doves and three French hens. And it's gonna get worse.
So here's the test: When your shop-a-holic true love finishes showering you with more gifts than Harry Potter's spoiled-brat nemesis Dudley Dursley on his birthday, how many living things will you have received? That includes people, cows, birds and trees.
By the way, the song's reference to "calling birds" was originally "colly birds," a British term for blackbirds that comes from "colliery," a Brit word for a coal mine. So here's an extra credit question: If each pie requires four-and-twenty blackbirds, how many pies will you be able to bake with all the "calling birds" he/she gives you?