The Twelfth Day of Christmas – Twelve Drummers Drumming

Palm Cockatoo with drumsticks (Photo by Christina Zdenek, taken from New Scientist(

Dear Readers, the Christmas decorations are packed away for another year, the carol CDs are tucked back in their box, and it’s raining yet again. But to finish things off with a bang, the Twelfth Day of Christmas celebrates with twelve drummers drumming. In some cultures, you don’t get your Christmas presents until Twelfth Night, when the Magi arrived, and this was traditionally the time when the world was turned upside down – servants were allowed to be cheeky to their masters, and people went through the streets in disguise, getting up to all sorts of mischief. Clearly they knew how to enjoy themselves!

But what of animals? Do they have a natural sense of rhythm? Studies have shown that male palm cockatoos, huge birds that live in the rainforests of Northern Australia, not only drum on trees as part of their courtship display but also make the drumsticks, picking a suitable twig and shaping it with their beaks. Different males have different ‘styles’ – some are slow and steady, some a bit more syncopated. The males often ‘drum’ on a hollow tree that would work as a nest site, and they may splinter up the ‘drumsticks’ afterwards to use as nest material. If the female is at all interested, she will fly down to inspect the site, and if she approves, the two may bond and mate.

Male palm cockatoo with ‘drumstick’ (Photo by Christina Zdenek, article referenced below)

You can watch a male cockatoo making a drumstick and performing in the video below.

And the New Scientist article is here.

Of course, many other animals ‘drum’ – the local woodland is already echoing to the sound of greater spotted woodpeckers hammering on trees to announce their territories, and I well remember the tale of a woodpecker that chose to hammer on one of the big metal speakers at a cricket ground, drowning out the commentator. Many species seem to have an instinctive understanding of how to amplify the sounds that they make – male chimpanzees will often ‘drum’ on a tree buttress for example, to make their displays more impressive.

These chimps from Comoé National Park in Côte d’Ivoire have different ways of ‘using’ this tree, and researchers think that each chimp may have his own individual way of announcing himself, almost like an aural signature. The only video I can find is on Facebook, but I hope you can watch it…

Even more intriguingly, researchers have found that some chimpanzees in the Republic of Guinea seem to have a ‘sacred tree’, at which they display a number of unusual behaviours. Sometimes they throw stones at the tree, or hit it with a stone. Sometimes, they just take a stone and place it in the hollow. None of the behaviours seem to have any connection with status or finding food, and some researchers are referring to what the chimps are doing as ‘proto-ritualistic’. You can watch a fine compilation of chimps interacting with the tree on the researcher, Laura Kehoe’s blog here.

Stones placed by chimpanzees in the ‘sacred’ tree (From New Scientist

So, at the end of one of the biggest religious festivals in the Christian calendar, are these chimps telling us something about the roots of belief in the sacred? It seems to me that we are so closely-related to the great apes that it was only a matter of time before we started to see behaviours that reflect our deep need to understand the world around us and to try to appease and control the forces of nature. And I would be very surprised if it’s only the great apes who do this – as we find out more and more about corvids and parrots, whales and monkeys, I suspect we will find things that will astonish us, and it makes it all the more urgent to protect the habitats where these animals live.

Last Question

Which of our wetland birds ‘drums’ like this?

And here are the links for all the previous days’ questions. I have decided to extend the deadline, as I did get rather carried away on some days 🙂 so you have until 5 p.m. on Sunday 9th January to put your answers in the comments (I will disappear them when I see them). Don’t worry if you haven’t had time to do all of the quizzes, I’m very happy to mark whichever ones you did manage to get round to.

The First Day of Christmas – A Partridge in a Pear Tree

The Second Day of Christmas – Two Turtle Doves

The Third Day of Christmas – Three French Hens

The Fourth Day of Christmas – Four Calling Birds

The Fifth Day of Christmas – Five Gold Rings

The Sixth Day of Christmas – Six Geese A-Laying

The Seventh Day of Christmas – Seven Swans A Swimming

The Eighth Day of Christmas – Eight Maids a-Milking

The Ninth Day of Christmas – Nine Ladies Dancing

The Tenth Day of Christmas – Ten Lords a-Leaping

The Eleventh Day of Christmas – Eleven Pipers Piping


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