Be Your Own Birder

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

The holiday is upon us, and we draw to a crashing, thunderous end of our celebration of The 12 Days of Christmas – birding style! And we do go out in style, with a last counting lyric well suited to more birds than you may realize – far more than just 12!

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
…Twelve drummers drumming.

Drum Set - Photo by slgckgc
Drum Set – Photo by slgckgc

Birds That Drum

When birders think of drumming, the first, most familiar, and most popular birds that come to mind are woodpeckers. But which ones? There are more than 250 woodpecker species throughout the world, including piculets, flickers, sapsuckers, flamebacks, and yellownapes. They are all types of woodpeckers, and most of them do, in fact, drum.

Winter Red-Bellied Woodpecker - Photo by Mark Baylor
Winter Red-Bellied Woodpecker – Photo by Mark Baylor

Drumming is a type of sound-producing behavior when birds hit at a resonant object to create a staccato pattern of rhythmic beats. It isn’t a song, because it isn’t melodious or have variations in tone or pitch, but it can still be heard from great distances and serves to help identify the birds creating the drumming tempos. Different species have different tempos and rhythms to their drumming, and they may repeat their patterns at different intervals and for different lengths of time, just like singing birds will repeat phrases and sing for different periods.

Yellow-Tufted Woodpecker - Photo by Joao Quental
Yellow-Tufted Woodpecker – Photo by Joao Quental

Drumming is most often done on tree trunks or branches, preferably hollow ones that will create stronger, more audible tones. Some birds will readily drum on many different objects, however, so long as they can create glorious noises (have you heard the woodpecker that sounds like a machine gun?). Woodpeckers have been noted as drumming on rain gutters and downspouts, electrical transformers, metal trash cans, light covers, chimneys, metal siding and roofing, and all types of wooden objects, including siding and fencing, utility poles, and fallen logs.

Golden-Olive Woodpecker - Photo by PEHart
Golden-Olive Woodpecker – Photo by PEHart

Other Birds That Drum

Woodpeckers aren’t the only birds that create a type of drumming, however. Some birds, notably sage-grouse and similar types of grassland birds, use their air sacs to create drum-like beats during courtship displays. While not as long or rhythmic as woodpecker drumming, these booming sounds resemble bass drums and other low, powerful beats. This type of drumming is far fewer beats, usually no more than two or three at a time, but it can be just as useful and meaningful to the birds that create the sounds.

Sage-Grouse in Winter - Photo by US Forest Service
Sage-Grouse in Winter – Photo by US Forest Service

What Bird Drumming Means

So why do birds make these odd sounds? Humans use drumming for entertainment or keeping a cadence, drawing attention to the beat either for fun or practical purposes. Birds also drum to get attention, either to attract a mate with their strong, solid tempos, to warn away competition from a territory they have already claimed, or to communicate across distances with stronger resonance than their relatively weak voices. The most accomplished bird drummers are generally poor songsters, and while they may have a limited repertoire of vocalizations, drumming is a far more important part of their communication than any chirps, tweets, or warbles.

Scaled Piculet - Photo by Fernando Flores
Scaled Piculet – Photo by Fernando Flores

More Musical Gifts

As with 11 pipers piping, a gift of drummers drumming is primarily a gift of music and all the luxury, entertainment, and celebration it incorporates. Whatever music you prefer, whatever gifts you give or receive this holiday season, and whatever festival, celebration, or observance you may participate in, all the best wishes to you and yours from Be Your Own Birder and all our family. I hope you have enjoyed this series, and that whenever you may hear The 12 Days of Christmas in whatever rendition, you smile as you think of the birds that are such gifts to us all.

Happy Holidays! - Photo by Meno Istorija
Happy Holidays! – Photo by Meno Istorija

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