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'Backstreet Boys' cockatoo shows researchers that dancing parrots really have rhythm

April 30, 2009 |  6:39 pm

Snowball the sulphur-crested cockatoo not only propelled himself to YouTube stardom with the now-famous video of him dancing to the Backstreet Boys' late-'90s hit "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," he also paved the way for a research study that shows birds (at least some of them) really do have rhythm. 

Among the video's thousands of viewers (it's received about 2 million views to date) was Aniruddh Patel of San Diego's Neurosciences Institute; he'd been emailed a link by a colleague.  Patel, a neurobiologist who studies the interplay of the brain and music, was suitably impressed.  "I said, you know, this is much more than just a cute pet trick. This is potentially scientifically very important," he told NPR's "All Things Considered."

As Patel began to investigate the Snowball phenomenon, he got in contact with the bird's owner, Irena Schulz.  Schulz, who lives in Indiana, runs a rescue group called Bird Lovers Only.  Snowball was brought to her by a previous owner when, as the rescue group's website notes, he'd "gotten to be a handful."  When the owner dropped Snowball off, he noted to Schulz that the cockatoo loved music -- and even brought along a copy of his favorite record.  (Yup, the Backstreet Boys.)  In the NPR interview, Schulz recalls her amazement when Snowball lifted his legs in the air in time with the music, "like a cancan girl."

Naturally, in the Internet age, Snowball was destined to become a celebrity.  But was he really in step with the tempo of his favorite boy-band hit?  Patel wanted to find out.  His group manipulated the track and sent Schulz the revised versions, both sped-up and slowed-down. 

Schulz played them for Snowball and videotaped his responses to the "new" music.  NPR reports on what happened next:

The videos show that yes, the bird will match his moves to the beat. For the slower versions, he sways his entire body like a pendulum. But, Schulz says, when the music gets faster, "he understands to adjust his movements. If he's going to sway, don't sway as much, just bob your head."

And when the beat gets really fast and he doesn't have time to bring his leg all the way up and down, she says, "he'll keep his foot lifted up and he'll just, like, do his wave, he'll wave his foot."

It was clear to Patel that Snowball indeed had rhythm; his findings are detailed in the journal Current Biology, published online today.  But was Snowball alone in the animal kingdom?  A companion piece, also published in Current Biology, explores that question.

Alex the African grey parrotAdena Schachner, a Harvard graduate student in psychology, studied another famous bird, Alex, the African grey parrot, who captivated researchers with his impressive vocabulary, ability to conceptualize and mathematics skills. 

Alex had never been trained to respond to music, but Schachner and colleagues (including Dr. Irene Pepperberg, Alex's longtime trainer, who penned a book about the bird called Alex & Me), decided to see how he'd respond.  Not knowing what to expect, they played music for Alex and, Schachner said, "to our surprise, Alex started to dance."  (Alex died unexpectedly shortly after the study was completed, apparently of "either a fatal arrhythmia, heart attack or stroke, which caused him to die suddenly with no suffering," according to The Alex Foundation.)

Schachner and company also mined the fertile fields of YouTube to learn more about animals' perceptions of "the beat," eventually viewing 1,000 videos or more as part of their study.  ("Imagine watching YouTube eight hours a day for a month," she told NPR. "That's pretty much what we did. It was amusing for perhaps the first couple of hours.") 

Of the videos they viewed, researchers found 49 that they felt merited detailed analysis.  Of those, 33 seemed to offer real evidence of the animals shown -- which consisted of 14 species of parrot and one species of elephant -- were actually following a beat.  The Associated Press reports:

Schachner, who pointed out that elephants are often trained performers and that little is known about the elephant videos, said it will take further work before she's convinced that elephants really move to a beat on their own.

When researchers contacted the owners of some parrots in the videos, they were told that the birds' response to music had been a surprise, indicating a natural ability.

One reason parrots and elephants would be uniquely suited to dancing, according to Tecumseh Fitch, an evolutionary biologist at Scotland's University of St. Andrews, is that both have the ability to mimic vocal sounds.  Parrots and elephants notably share this ability with -- you guessed it -- humans, which suggests that dancing ability may be an evolutionary byproduct of the brain circuitry that allows people to learn to speak.

Current Biology's video below demonstrates Snowball's ability to alter his dance moves as the tempo changes:

-- Lindsay Barnett

Top video: BirdLoversOnly via YouTube
Photo: Alex with Dr. Irene Pepperberg. The parrot was able to discern between different colors, textures, shapes and amounts of objects presented him by Pepperberg. Credit: Michael Goldman.
Bottom video: cellpressvideo via YouTube

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