Dancing to the beat: this is what Australians and our cockatoos have in common

By Angela Heathcote July 9, 2019
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New research has revealed that the solid repertoire of dance moves performed by Australian cockatoos could mean they’ve gone beyond living simply to survive.

AFTER DECADES of research, we now know that birds are far smarter than we ever gave them credit for, making the insult “bird brain” redundant. 

Adding to this research, a paper published today in Current Biology, titled ‘Spontaneity and diversity of movement to music are not uniquely human’ reveals the intelligence of Australia’s cockatoos.

Snowball, a dancing sulphur-crested cockatoo that demonstrated an ability to synchronise his movements to the music of the Backstreet Boys a decade ago, continues to confound researchers.

Neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel, who conducted the first study on Snowball back in 2009, has found that Snowball’s dance moves are an example of cockatoos exceeding their basic needs for survival.

Before this new research, those within the avian cognitive field were sceptical of Snowball’s dance moves, believing them to be an arbitrary product of human culture. 

Gisela Kaplan, a leading expert in avian cognition and the author of Bird Minds: Cognition and Behaviour of Australian Native Birds believed Snowball’s initial behaviours were relatively unremarkable. 

“Why I initially thought the significance of the findings was overblown was because cockatoos bob their heads in their natural environment in several communicative acts such as play readiness and they may do so also rhythmically.”

But she says Aniruddh’s new paper is different, as it suggests that the parrot could be using its forebrain, known as the pallium, which performs similar functions to the human neocortex – the higher cognitive area – to inform its movements.

New moves

Snowball’s owner, Irena Schulz, who is also a co-author of the paper, noticed that he was demonstrating new dance moves she hadn’t seen him perform before.

According to the paper, the diversity of Snowball’s moves, from body rolls, head bangs and down-shakes, suggests a “strong contribution of the forebrain regions to this behaviour.”

“It’s an excellent paper,” says Gisela. “By capturing Snowball’s movements frame by frame, you see whether the bird’s movements have anything to do with musical rhythm , or have resulted from a well-documented sense of  synchronicity that many birds have used in their courtship display.

“But since they do not use dancing in courtship displays and are not even songbirds, the question is, why would they have a skill that doesn’t serve them in their natural environments.”

Well, according to Aniruddh and colleagues, the dance moves arise from five key evolutionary traits: 

  • Complex vocal learning 
  • The capacity for non-verbal movement imitation 
  • A tendency to form long-term social bonds
  • The ability to learn complex sequences of actions
  • Attentiveness to communicative movements.

“Parrots are unusual in sharing all of these traits with humans, which could explain why (to date) apparently only humans and parrots show spontaneous and diverse dancing to music,” the paper reads.

Gisela explains further, “one capacity may have evolved out of necessity and then another evolved out of a different necessity, but if a number of changes occur in parallel, the interaction of as many as four or five new features might suddenly produce completely new outcomes.

“This is certainly true in humans, for example, who have far exceeded in brain power than their basic needs for survival would require.

“Somehow the evolution of cockatoos have led them to a point where they can do things over and above needs for survival.”

Early days for avian cognition

Avian cognition only became an official discipline back in 2004, when, Gisela says, there was recognition that the bird brain had more to tell us.

From there, key parts of the bird brain were renamed, most importantly, the pallium, which differs structurally from the human forebrain, but sits in a similar position and performs similar functions.

According to Gisela, science has a long way to go in fully understanding the complexities of the bird brain, but we already appreciate bird intelligence and their general abilities much more than we did in the 20th century.

“All parrots and songbirds are Gondwanan in origin. Australian cockatoos have 95 million years of evolution behind them and Australians should be proud of that.”