This Cockatoo Can Shake His Tail Feathers

Irena Schulz filmed her sulphur-crested cockatoo, Snowball, dancing to the Backstreet Boys. It was a YouTube sensation. A couple of neuroscientists, including John Iversen of the Neurosciences Institute, saw the video and decided to look into it.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Flora Lichtman is here with our Video Pick of the Week. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: What have you got for us today?

LICHTMAN: Well, we have some comic relief after that hour…

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: …of swine flu. The - it's a couple of bird videos. And the first one is a dancing cockatoo.

FLATOW: Now, we've seen that all over YouTube, right?

LICHTMAN: All right. We're not - okay, we're not the first one to have this video footage. It was a viral YouTube sensation.

FLATOW: But…

LICHTMAN: But the funny part is that of the millions of viewers, there were two - a couple of neuroscientists out in California. And they said to themselves - they specialize in music - and said, you know, we should really look into this. So they called up the owner, and she said, okay. If you want to do an experiment with my bird, Snowball, go for it. And that's how it all began.

FLATOW: So they - they actually went to Snowball with some music and played different beats of music?

LICHTMAN: So they played - Snowball's favorite song, apparently, is by the Backstreet Boys. Just, Snowball loves to get down to the Backstreet Boys. So they played the Backstreet Boys to Snowball and found, after some analysis of the video, that Snowball really was hitting the beat. But the kind of more amazing thing is that they changed the tempo on the song and Snowball adjusted his rhythm, so he's like a better dancer than probably most people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Wow. And we could see this at - if you go to our Web site, it's sciencefriday.com, we have the new video of Snowball dancing to the different beats and the interviews with the scientists.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. And they explained - I mean, there is some sort of significance here.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: It's not just cute. It also raises new questions about, you know, the brain circuitry required for music. It was thought to be kind of a human thing. But this suggests that, you know, maybe not.

FLATOW: And any other video? We have a listener video.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. We have a great - this week, we have a great listener-submitted video. Thanks to Dakin Henderson, who is a student who works out in the field, studying owls out in Colorado. And he - while he was out there, he took some video footage of, he and his colleagues, capturing these owls from the tree. And it really is spectacular.

FLATOW: Wow. So we've got two birds for the price of one…

LICHTMAN: That's right.

FLATOW: …today. And one of the - and they just showed then the owls being captured…

LICHTMAN: At night. So you have to - it requires this super long pole and, you know, a lot of patience, I think, and a net.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: And it's incredible. I mean, I never would've imagined how you would do research on these birds…

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: …until I saw this video. So it was interesting.

FLATOW: That's terrific. And that's all of this - this week's Video Picks of the Week.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Our bird brains are at sciencefriday.com. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks.

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Parrots Join Humans On The Dance Floor

Who Dances Better? Snowball Or Napoleon?

Two famous parrots and a bevy of YouTube videos have now convinced scientists that people aren't the only ones who can groove to a musical beat.

Dancing has long been thought to be uniquely human. Toddlers will spontaneously bob along with music, but you never see dogs or cats listen to a tune and tap their tails in time.

So a couple of years ago, a neurobiologist named Aniruddh Patel was astonished when someone e-mailed him a link to a YouTube video of a sulfur-crested cockatoo named Snowball dancing to the Backstreet Boys.

"I said, you know, this is much more than just a cute pet trick. This is potentially scientifically very important," recalls Patel, who studies music and the brain at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego.

Like A Cancan Girl

He got in touch with Snowball's owner, Irena Schulz. She runs Bird Lovers Only Rescue Service, a bird shelter in Indiana.

Schulz recalls that when Snowball's previous owner had dropped him off, he "also explained that Snowball dances." And along with Snowball, the man had brought the bird's favorite music.

Snowball Gets Down To Backstreet Boys

He put on the Backstreet Boys and Snowball started to get down like there was no tomorrow, says Schulz.

"It was incredible the way that he would lift his legs way up in the air, like a cancan girl," she remembers.

Snowball swayed, he kicked, he bobbed his head — all in time with the music. Schulz put a video of the bird dancing online and it went viral, with millions of people watching him on YouTube.

"I felt like OK, this could be real," says Patel. But he wanted to test Snowball to see if the bird could really adjust his movements to match a different beat. After all, maybe Snowball just did a trained routine at one tempo that just happened to go with certain songs.

Patel's group took Snowball's beloved Backstreet Boys song and manipulated it with a computer. They slowed it down and sped it up. They sent the modified music to Schulz, who played it for Snowball and videotaped his reactions.

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."

More Than 5,000 YouTube Videos

The results of this study are reported in the journal Current Biology, along with another scientific paper inspired by YouTube videos of dancing animals.

Prove It

So you think your pet can dance? Post your evidence on YouTube... but make sure to tag them "nprpetdance."

   

We'll select the best for our YouTube channel.

Adena Schachner is a graduate student in the psychology department of Harvard University. She says she was familiar with the idea that some people had made videos of birds supposedly dancing. And back in 2007, when she got interested in this, a famous African Grey Parrot named Alex lived at a nearby animal cognition lab. So she and her colleagues created some new music, something no bird could have heard before, and they played it for Alex.

"We were shocked, basically, when we put on these tracks and saw him bobbing his head what looked like to the beat," Schachner says.

Unfortunately, Alex died soon after. But Schachner realized that they could look for other dancing animals, with the help of YouTube. "We searched for 'cat dancing', 'dog dancing,' 'bird dancing,'" she explains.

She and her colleagues eventually analyzed more than 5,000 videos. "Imagine watching YouTube eight hours a day for a month," she says. "That's pretty much what we did. It was amusing for perhaps the first couple of hours."

In the end, only 33 videos really seemed to show creatures moving with a beat. There were 14 different species of parrots and one elephant species.

Dancers Are Vocal Mimics

Schachner says the important thing is that, like humans — and unlike dogs or cats — parrots and elephants are both known to be vocal mimics. They can imitate sounds. "And that's really striking," she says.

It means dancing may be a byproduct of an ability that evolved for vocal imitation and vocal learning. After all, to mimic a sound, you have to listen to it and its rhythm and then use that information to coordinate movement — to shape the way you move your lips and tongue.

All of these findings have convinced Tecumseh Fitch, an evolutionary biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who is interested in the origin of music.

"The capacity to extract a beat from sound and move your body to it was, until these papers, believed to be uniquely human," he says, adding that if parrots can really dance, all kinds of new experiments are now possible.

"For example, what genes are turned on while a bird is dancing?" wonders Fitch. "What genes are turned on by listening to a beat, versus listening to sounds that don't have a beat?"

And what would happen if a bird never heard any music for the first few years of its life? Could it still dance later on? That would be an interesting study, Fitch says, and one that could never be done on people.

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