Musical Cockatoos

05 May 2009


It's not just humans that have an ear for the beat, birds and certain other animals do too. Two papers in Current Biology by UCSD researcher Aniruddh Patel and Harvard's Marc Hauser show that animals that are vocal mimicks have a tendency to dance and head-bang when they are exposed to music. This had been suspected for some time but it was uncertain whether the animals were responding to the beat, or merely copying the dance moves of their owners! To find out the UCSD team focused their research on a cockatoo called Snowball whom they discovered thanks to some YouTube footage which showed him dancing to the song "Everybody" by the Backstreet Boys.

Sulphur Crested CockatooWith the bird in the laboratory the team recorded snowball's response to hearing the same tune but with the beat frequency manipulated to be up to 20% faster or slower. They wanted to see whether the bird altered its dance routine to reflect the change in the musical tempo. This was exactly what ocurred, although the effect was more marked at faster beats. In the second paper Hauser's team carried out similar experiements, showing that an experimental bird was clearing matching its dance rate to musical tempo, but they also resorted to YouTube to test another hypothesis - that only certain species have this ability. The team screened the online video archive for sequences of animals being exposed to music and scrutinised how they responded.

They found that only animals that use vocal mimickry, including birds, marine mammals, elephants, bats and (of course) humans, genuinely respond to sound in this way. This, say both research teams, probably reflects the fact that vocal mimickry requires very well-developed connections between the brain's auditory systems and the motor system, so that for example an individual can learn to speak, or, in the case of birds,sing a song that sounds like that of a peer. "This gives us some insights into the origins of our own musical abilities," say the researchers.


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