In a First, Bird Uses Tools to Make Sweet Music

The palm cockatoo is the only species aside from humans that can drum a rhythmic beat with its own homemade objects, a new study says.

Male palm cockatoos just might be the rock stars of the animal kingdom—but unsurprisingly, they mainly just do it for the chicks.

The Australian bird is the only animal other than humans known to use a custom-made tool to tap out a percussive beat, a new study says. While other animals, such as chimpanzees, enjoy drumming on sticks and logs, they don’t make their own musical implements to do it.

Robert Heinsohn, a conservation biologist at Australia National University, first witnessed the behaviour in male birds in northern Australia in 1997.

COCKATOOS BECOME DRUMMERS TO PICK UP CHICKS

“The cockatoo was clutching what looked like a stick and banging it on the trunk, and every so often he would pause, erect his amazing crest, and let out either a piping whistle or a harsh screech,” says Heinsohn, who received funding for his research from the National Geographic Society.

Intrigued, Heinsohn spent the next two decades videotaping the shy animals to find out if their drumming is truly music—defined as regular beat production, repeated components, and of course, personal flair.

By analysing the sequences of the beats made by the birds, Heinsohn and colleagues found the sounds were highly predictable, just like human music. And each male Heinsohn observed banging a rock or stick had a unique, yet discrete, musical style.

ROCKATO

Importantly, males primarily started drumming when they were around females—about 70 percent of the time, according to the research, published this week in the journal Science Advances.

The males also frequently combined their drumming with a vocal and visual display.

“Their cheeks go red when sexually excited," Heinsohn says, noting a certain the lack of subtlety in their motives. (Read about weird courtship and mating rituals.)

However, Heinsohn and his team did not examine the females' reactions to the males' music.

This study raises new questions about the perception of differing rhythms by females, notes Aniruddh Patel, a music cognition professor at Tufts University, who was not involved in the study.

"Being able to produce a regular rhythm doesn’t automatically translate into even seemingly basic rhythmic perception abilities," says Patel, noting that it needs be explored if regular rhythms are more appealing to females.

NOT MISSING A BEAT

Being able to keep a beat through percussion is a deep-rooted part of human biology. How this evolved has long fascinated scientists—even Charles Darwin wrote about humans' innate penchant for rhythm.

While male palm cockatoos generate their own unique beats, they don't dance—an activity that, for people, goes hand in hand with music.

A male palm cockatoo taps a hollow tree stump.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT HEINSOHN

Many birds, such as whooping cranes and birds of paradise, display courtship dances, but the palm cockatoo is primarily interested in the rhythm. 

These birds are also unique in that they are solo acts, so Heinsohn thinks behaviour may have evolved purely as individual courtship and not in a group environment.

“It seems that they are open to the pleasure of rhythm, just like humans,” he says.

“As soon as one male works out a pleasing drumming pattern involving rhythm that gets the stamp of approval from the females, then others would be quick to learn it so that it would spread easily in a population.”

Header Image: A male palm cockatoo grasps a drumstick while displaying it to the female. PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT HEINSOHN

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