Cockatoo choreographed his own dance moves

Erika Holt
July 10, 2019

Snowball the sulphur-crested, headbanging cockatoo has been dancing his way through talk shows and commercials for years, baffling scientists around the world.

"He didn't just stomp his feet or bob his head (both movements that have other purposes and are easily adapted to dancing) but created new moves with other body parts", said Heinsohn, who watched Snowball's YouTube videos.

While many other animals can be taught to dance by trainers or their owners, Snowball is able to do it on his own. It's a finding that supports the idea that "dancing is not just purely a product of human cultural invention, it's a response to music that arises when certain cognitive and neural capacities come together in an animal brain", says Patel.

Soon after that study, Snowball's owner and an author on the new paper, Irena Schulz, noticed that the parrot was making movements to music she hadn't seen before.

He had already been studying people's inherent ability and desire to move to a beat, when he came across the grainy YouTube footage of a white parrot bobbing, kicking and squeaking along to Everybody (Backstreet's Back) by the Backstreet Boys. "He pushes the limits of our beliefs in animal musicality, convincing us that non-human animals can be capable of very human-like dance behavior".

Looking ahead, Patel and his colleagues are keen to explore this social context and determine if Snowball dances to strengthen his bond with people.

She found Snowball had a repertoire of 14 "dance movements" and two composite movements, researchers said.

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The first study about Snowball was published in 2009 in Current Biology, and it confirmed that, yes, this cockatoo could keep a beat.

"What's most interesting to us is the sheer diversity of his movements to music", says senior author Aniruddh Patel, a psychologist at Tufts University and Harvard University, noting that Snowball developed those moves-much richer than the head bobbing and foot lifting they'd studied before-without any training.

Some moves are more complicated, like "headbang with lifted foot".

Writing in Current Biology, the scientists describe how they filmed Snowball dancing to the Queen and Cyndi Lauper tracks three times. Yet humans move their entire bodies when dancing in a grand array of gestures - twerking, anyone?

Or Snowball could just be creative. She focused on each "dance movement" or sequence of repeated movements.

"Humans are the only primates with this ability, which could explain why no other primate shows spontaneous and diverse movement to music", Professor Patel said.

"We think some of his move are likely to be his own creation, because his owner doesn't make these moves when she dances with him". Patel describes them as "complex vocal learning, the ability to imitate movements, the ability to learn complex sequences of movements, attention to communicative gestures, and the tendency to form long-term social bonds", which parrots can form with other parrots and with humans. Moving to music is a universal human phenomenon. Snowball's dance snippets tended to be performed for several seconds each, and he changed up his routine each time he heard a song again.

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