Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. After this next story, you may want to go look at npr.org. We've posted a video there that you have to see to believe. It's of a parrot dancing. But this isn't just a story about somebody's dancing pet. We're talking science, here. Dancing has long been thought to be something unique to humans. Now, though, two new studies say that certain parrots move to music - some better than others, as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Irena Schulz runs a bird shelter in Indiana called Bird Lovers Only Rescue Service. A couple years ago, a man called up and said he had a male cockatoo he couldn't keep anymore. The big, white bird was named Snowball.

Ms. IRENA SCHULZ (Bird Lovers Only Rescue Service): Well, when he came, the owner also explained that Snowball dances.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Along with Snowball, the owner had brought the bird's favorite music.

Ms. SCHULZ: We put the CD in, and it was the Backstreet Boys.

(Soundbite of song, "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)")

THE BACKSTREET BOYS (Boy Band): (Singing) Eveybody…

Ms. SCHULZ: Snowball was on my arm, and he just started getting down like no tomorrow. It was incredible the way that he would lift his legs way up in the air like a cancan girl.

(Soundbite of bird chirping)

(Soundbite of song, "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)")

THE BACKSTREET BOYS: (Singing) Eveybody…

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He swayed, he kicked, he bobbed his head, with its feathered crest looking like a big, yellow mohawk - all in time with the music. Irena Schulz put a video of the dancing bird on her shelter's Web site, and it went viral. Millions of people saw Snowball dance on YouTube.

One of them was Aniruddh Patel, a scientist at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego who studies music and the brain. He says his jaw hit the floor. He thought, this isn't just a cute pet trick. This could be important for science.

Dr. ANIRUDDH PATEL (Neurosciences Institute): This is the first time I've an animal that really seems to get it in terms of sensing a beat and moving in time with it. And I felt like, okay, this could be real, and if we did the critical experiment, that he might actually be able to do it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That critical experiment was seeing if Snowball could really adjust his movements to match a beat. After all, maybe he just did a trained routine at one tempo that just happened to go with certain songs. So Patel's group took Snowball's beloved Backstreet Boys song and manipulated it with a computer. They slowed it down…

(Soundbite of song, "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)")

GREENFIELDBOYCE: …and sped it up.

(Soundbite of song, "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)")

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They sent the modified music to Irena Schultz, who played it for Snowball. The videos show that yes, the bird seems to run through his list of dance moves until he matches the beat. For the slower versions, he sways his entire body like a pendulum. But Schulz says when the music gets faster…

Ms. SCHULZ: He understands to adjust his movements. If he's going to sway, don't sway as much. Just bob your head.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And when the beat gets really fast and he doesn't have time to bring his leg all the way up and down…

Ms. SCHULZ: He'll keep his foot lifted up and he'll just, like, do his wave. He'll wave his foot.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Meanwhile, other scientists across the country were also watching YouTube and wondering if bird dancing was for real. Adena Schachner is a graduate student in the psychology department of Harvard University. She says back in 2007, 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 ever heard before…

(Soundbite of music)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: …and they played it for Alex.

Ms. ADENA SCHACHNER (Graduate Student, Harvard University): We were shocked, basically, when we put on these tracks and saw him bobbing his head, what looked like, to the beat.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Unfortunately, Alex passed away soon after. But Schachner realized they could look for other dancing animals with the help of YouTube.

Ms. SCHACHNER: So we searched for, like, cat dancing, dog dancing, bird dancing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They analyzed over 5,000 videos.

Ms. SCHACHNER: Imagine watching YouTube eight hours a day for a month, and that's pretty much what we did. It was amusing for perhaps the first couple of hours.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In the end, only 33 videos really seemed to show creatures moving with a beat. There were 14 different parrot species and one elephant species. Schachner says the important thing is that, like humans - and unlike dogs or cats - parrots and elephants are known to be vocal mimics. They can imitate sounds.

Ms. SCHACHNER: And that's really striking.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It means dancing may be a byproduct of an ability that evolved for vocal imitation or 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.

These new studies appear in the journal "Current Biology." They've impressed Tecumseh Fitch.

Dr. TECUMSEH FITCH (Evolutionary Biologist, University of St. Andrews): The capacity to extract a beat from sound and move your body to it was, until these papers, believed to be uniquely human.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Fitch is an evolutionary biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, who's interested in the origin of music. He says if an animal can dance, now all kinds of experiments are possible.

For example, what genes are turned on while a bird is dancing? 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? Fitch says that would be an interesting study, one that never could be done on people.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And at npr.org, Snowball takes on a sea lion and an orangutan in a dance off. If you think your pet really can dance, then post your videos on YouTube. Just be sure to tag them, all one word, nprpetdance.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.