10 Jul 2019

Can a cockatoo choreograph its own dance?

From Morning Report, 8:55 am on 10 July 2019

A new study of the smooth moves of sulphur-crested cockatoo Snowball suggests that dancing to music isn't purely a product of human culture.

The cockatoo has 14 distinct moves – the down shake, the pose, the head bang, the foot-lift down swing among them – and appears to be choreographing his dancing.

Ani Patel a professor of psychology at Tufts University, Massachusetts, focuses on music cognition and he told Morning Report it appears Snowball’s dancing is socially driven.

“This impulse to move to music in this complex way arises when certain cognitive and neural capacities come together in an animal's brain and we think parrots have that convergence and we think humans do, but we think very few other animals have that convergence of capacities and that’s why we don’t see monkeys doing this even though they’re so much more closely related to us,” Professor Patel says.

We humans tend to dance for social reasons, he says. So they tested Snowball in different conditions to see if the same was true of him.

“So we’ve done an experiment where we have music playing; he’s either alone just with a camera, or there’s a person giving him encouragement or a person dancing with him and we want to see if that influences how much he dances because we think for him it is a social behaviour, he’s not getting any food rewards and he’s never been explicitly trained to do it, so I think he’s doing it for social interaction.”

As to his choreography, he certainly choosing which moves best suit the grooves he’s dancing to.

“You definitely get the sense that he's picking the moves from a repertoire he has, and that makes it a kind of cognitive act, in terms of selecting different complex actions, rather than just producing some simple movement, that might be reflections of innate parrot movements."