I’m going to name Snowball as this website’s Official Cockatoo™, since one of our readers is his road manager and the bird is, after all, the first nonhuman animal ever shown to be capable of “dancing” (defined below).
I’ve just been sent a hot-off-the-camera video of Snowball dancing in various venues, including the 2009 World Science Festival, where he boogied with the entire panel of scientists there to discuss “Avian Einsteins” (that segment is between 1:55 and 2:42 of the following video). I must sadly reiterate that the WSF is partly sponsored by the odious Templeton Foundation.
He also appears in a Taco Bell Commercial.
Now Snowball is more than amusing, for he’s a scientific anomaly. Wikipedia explains:
Snowball (hatched c. 1996) is a male Eleonora Cockatoo, noted as being the first non-human animal conclusively demonstrated to be capable of beat induction— perceiving music and synchronizing his body movements to the beat (i.e.,dancing).
. . .In 2008, the YouTube clip featuring Snowball was brought to the attention of Drs. Aniruddh D. Patel and John R. Iversen of the Neurosciences Institute, La Jolla. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Patel stated that his ‘jaw hit the floor’ upon seeing the video, comparing the unlikely and contrary-to-accepted-wisdom nature of a cockatoo dancing to human music to that of a ‘dog reading a newspaper out loud’. Between January and May 2008, Patel led research to determine whether or not Snowball was, in fact truly synchronizing his body movements to the music (as opposed to simply mimicking or responding to visual clues from humans present in the room at the same time). Snowball’s favorite piece of music was played to him at several different tempos and his reactions recorded on video for later analysis. The results, published in the paper “Investigating the human-specificity of synchronization to music” showed that Snowball was capable of spontaneously dancing to human music and also that he could adjust his movements to match the tempo of the music (albeit to a limited extent), a behavior previously thought only to occur in humans. [JAC: see references and links below; there are now three papers on Snowball.] This ability is believed to be unrelated to the male Eleonora Cockatoo’s natural courtship display, which is described as “simple and brief” and involves strutting towards the female with crest raised, whilst bobbing and swishing his head in a figure-eight movement and “uttering soft, chattering notes all the while”.
Adena Schachner and other scientists at Harvard University have also studied Snowball and reached conclusions which, broadly, endorse those of Dr. Patel. Schachner also identified that Alex, an African Grey Parrot famed for his intelligent use of language may have also shared the ability to ‘dance’, in addition to 33 other clips on YouTube showing animals moving in time to music.Patel has suggested that the capability of both humans and cockatoos to move synchronously to a rhythmic beat may be a “byproduct of a link between the auditory and motor parts of the brain” as a result of both species’ ability to learn and mimic sounds.
Here’s the original dancing Snowball video, which I believe I posted some time ago. It’s now up to 5.3 million views:
You can see Snowball dancing to Stevie Nicks here, read our bird’s story here, and learn about how Snowball was acquired here. Amazingly, he was a rescue bird, ditched by two previous owners before his current mom, Irena, adopted him. Snowball’s travails are now over, though: he has a loving home, many fans, and some commercial endorsements (I only hope the publicity doesn’t cause his crest to swell!).
Patel, A. D.; Iversen, J. R.; Bregman, M. R.; Schulz, I., and Schulz, C. 2008. “Investigating the human-specificity of synchronization to music”. Proceedings of the 10th Intl. Conf. on Music Perception and Cognition (Causal Productions). Retrieved 2008-09-20.
Patel, A. D. et al. 2008. Studying synchronization to a musical beat in nonhuman animals.Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Jul;1169:459-69. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04581.