10 Jul 2019

Watch: Can a cockatoo choreograph its own dance?

11:12 am on 10 July 2019

A study of the moves of a sulphur-crested cockatoo has given new meaning to shaking your tail feathers.

The study on the bird, called Snowball, is suggesting that dancing to music isn't purely a product of human culture.

Tufts University's professor of psychology, Ani Patel, who focuses on music cognition, has been studying Snowball's moves.

The cockatoo has 14 distinct moves - and appears to be choreographing his dancing.

Prof Patel told Morning Report he first spotted the bird 10 years ago, when he became famous online for his dancing.

"At that time we had no idea if any other species would move to music the way humans do.

"People move to the beat of music and especially when they dance and no other species had been ever documented doing that. There was a lot of debate about whether it's a unique or human response to music.

"Then this bird turned up on the internet looking like he was actually moving to the beat."

Prof Patel said the first study they conducted with Snowball was to test synchronisation to music was from the bird and not another influence.

"We showed he really did synchronise and it was the first case of another species having that capacity."

He was had now conducted a study to understand the diversity of Snowball's movements.

"The first study we just looked at head bobbing but after that he started to do more different kinds of movements that we hadn't seen in the first study.

"None of this was trained, it just emerged through social interaction with people and that's why we said let's study this and see how complex it is."

Prof Patel said there was even a sense that Snowball was picking his own moves - making it a cognitive act, rather than innate parrot movement.

He said it was rare for other animals to have the ability to do that.

"We think this impulse to move to music in a complex way arises when certain cognitive and neural capacities come together in an animal's brain.

"We think parrot's have that convergence of capacities ... but we think very few other animals have that convergence of capacities, that's why we don't see monkeys doing this even though they're so much more closely related to us for example."

In this second study, the professor explored whether Snowball was dancing for social interaction - in the same way humans do - with Billy Idol's Dancing With Myself also featuring in an experiment.

"We've done an experiment where we had music playing, either alone just with the camera or 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 this is a social behaviour.

"He's not getting food rewards or anything, he's never been explicitly trained to do it so we think he's doing it for social interaction."