July 11, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

Bird with a Beat

Viewers will get a kick out of Snowball the cockatoo bobbing to the beat of music.

Humans can go nuts responding to music, we all know: from foot-tapping to wild whole-body movements and hair shakes, the more energy in the beat, the crazier it can get. But birds? Meet Snowflake, a sulfur-crested white cockatoo, that has mastered 14 separate movements when the music is turned up loud. He really gets into it! He lifts his foot, bobs his head, swings back and forth and other things, all to the beat of the music, and he has the perfect headdress to put on a good show. You can watch samples at Current Biology, where four researchers posted video clips under their free-access article, “Spontaneity and diversity of movement to music are not uniquely human.” A better sample is posted by The Guardian on YouTube. Another YouTube post by Sky News includes scientists trying to explain this behavior by Snowball and another novice cockatoo dancer.

Some sea lions can do this, too, at least by bobbing the head up and down (Pinneped Lab), but many animals seem oblivious to music. These scientists were impressed with Snowball’s “remarkably diverse spontaneous movements employing a variety of body parts, and suggest why parrots share this response with humans.” The ability of a parrot to do this raises questions about animal cognition, instinct and even aesthetics. Does the bird enjoy this behavior?

Snowball performing (Current Biology, 29:13, 8 July 2019)

Snowball is not unique: other examples of diversity in parrot movement to music can be found on the internet (see links in Supplemental Information). A key question, however, is how such moves are acquired. Parrots can imitate movements, and if their movements to music are due to imitation (for example, from seeing humans dance), it would suggest that parrots can solve the ‘correspondence problem’ in a remarkably sophisticated way (watching an individual with a very different body morphology perform a motor pattern, then mapping that pattern across modalities onto one’s own motor system, without direct reinforcement). Another possibility is that some moves may reflect creativity. This would also be remarkable, as creativity in nonhuman animals has typically been documented in behaviors aimed at obtaining an immediate physical benefit, such as access to food or mating opportunities. Snowball does not dance for food or in order to mate; instead, his dancing appears to be a social behavior used to interact with human caregivers (his surrogate flock).

Whatever is going on in a bird’s brain, Snowball’s performance looks as close to having pure fun as is possible. But of course, many animals and pets constantly amuse us with their antics: the cat watching birds on TV, the crow playing see-saw, the otter’s first time in the water, and the dog experiencing snow for the first time. Lots of birds seem to enjoy their bodies and want to have fun; see a compilation on YouTube by Happiness Kingdom.

We know little how these fun behaviors are wired in the brain, but we can appreciate them and marvel at them. It would seem evolutionists are at a loss to explain it; there’s no mention of evolution in the article, by the way. 

A beneficent Creator, though, loves joy. Maybe He wired animals to have some fun in addition to giving them instinctive know-how to provide for the necessities. Watch Illustra’s musical “Ode to the Animals” again for a celebration of living art!

Now they need to teach Snowball to appreciate classical music.

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