Male palm cockatoos play drums to impress females

Two male palm cockatoos sitting in a tree.
The male palm cockatoo uses tool to drum on wood.
Credit: C. Zdenek

Cocky loves to dance. From rhythm and blues to heavy metal, your typical pet cockatoo needs little encouragement to shake its tail feather and bang its head. Independent tests (namely YouTube videos) demonstrate that pretty much anything with a beat – be it a track from Elvis Presley, Queen, AC/DC, Back Street Boys, Tone Loc or Pharrell Wilson – will do.

Yet while all cockatoos appear to be music lovers, only one type of cockatoo is a music creator. The male palm cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus) doesn’t just produce percussive music, with a repertoire of different rhythmic beats, but actually fashions its own instruments, striking hollow tree limbs with modified sticks or seedpods to amplify its performance.

This is the only known non-human example of drumming using manufactured sound tools, report a team of Australian researchers led by Robert Heinsohn of Australian National University in Canberra. “This behavior is remarkable,” they note in their paper, published in Science Advances, “because tool manufacture among nonhuman species is rare and almost always occurs in the context of solving problems related to foraging, but palm cockatoos use their tools only to make sounds.”

While other species, such as chimpanzees, have been found to drum, none use instruments like the palm cockatoos. “Our study of tool-assisted drumming in palm cockatoos,” the researchers report, “shows that they use abilities seen separately in other nonhuman species in a combination that has, to our knowledge, been recorded only in humans when performing percussive musical rhythms.”

The researchers, from ANU, the University of Queensland and Deakin University in Victoria, who recorded 131 distinct sequences of drumming (each comprising 5 to 92 percussive taps) made by 18 cockatoos. The birds exhibited another distinguishing characteristic shared with human music, with individuals having their own consistent drumming patterns or “signatures”.

The cockatoos were recorded on Australia’s Cape York Peninsula. Along with the cape, the palm cockatoo can be also be found on islands off the Australian north coast and in the lowlands of Papua New Guinea.

Their data suggests the male palm cockatoo has evolved the ability generate its own regular percussive beat when displaying to females, rather than entraining to a beat provided by others, due the spacing of nests being further than the distance travelled by their drumming sounds.

“Male palm cockatoos thus appear to be more like solo musical artists or the beat setters of musical ensembles (for example, drummers in western rock bands) who have their own internalised notion of a regular pulse, and then generate the motor pattern that creates the beat,” the researchers report.

Please login to favourite this article.