Drumming Cockatoos Keep the Beat Like Human Musicians

C. Zdenek
C. Zdenek

The ladies love drummers—or at least that's what these male cockatoos are hoping. The shy but clever birds make their own drumsticks and their own music, with each bird playing his own unique rhythm. A report on the birds' advanced chick-scoring technique was published in the journal Science Advances.

Music, with its rhythm and instruments and performance and style, has long been believed to be the sole province of humans. Other animals don't make music, we told ourselves. They just make noise.

Then scientists started paying attention to the palm cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus) of Australia's Cape York Peninsula. Like other birds in the parrot family, female cockatoos select their mates after seeing what the males have to offer. In this case, that means impressive crests, rosy cheeks, and a kickin' beat.

Not any drumstick will do. Male palm cockatoos craft their instruments with care, selecting just the right twigs and seed pods and trimming them down to the right size and shape. Then, and only then, does the performance begin.

"Anyway, here's Lipstick Vogue."C. Zdenek

Researchers tracked 18 males seasonally from 2009 to 2015. The moment the scientists saw a bird beginning to craft a drumstick, they switched on the camera and audio recording equipment. Eventually, they'd amassed Behind the Music footage of 131 different drum sessions.

Analysis of the recordings revealed that the birds' musical lives were even more nuanced and fascinating than they seemed. These birds have flair.

"Each of 18 male palm cockatoos, known for their shyness and elusiveness, was shown to have its own style or drumming signature," lead author Rob Heinsohn of Australian National University said in a statement.

"Some males were consistently fast, some were slow, while others loved a little flourish at the beginning."

Heinsohn said the unique rhythms could act like a signature or a call sign, identifying each bird as its beats ring through the forest.

They've got rhythm, too.

"The icing on the cake is that the taps are almost perfectly spaced over very long sequences," Heinsohn said, "just like a human drummer would do when holding a regular beat." 

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

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Prices subject to change.

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The Queen’s Guard May Have to Give Up Their Iconic Bearskin Hats

Can you tell that this is real bear fur?
Can you tell that this is real bear fur?
Defence Images, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) has given its leaders the chance to negotiate new trade deals and maybe even ban the sale of certain products—like fur. It’s something animal rights activists have long been pushing for, and a recently publicized letter from UK environment secretary George Eustice suggests that the government will indeed investigate the possibility.

As The Independent reports, Eustice wrote to the chief executive of the British Fur Trade Association that “once the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU has been established, there will be an opportunity to consider further steps it could take in relation to fur sales.” It’s far from a definitive proclamation, but since Eustice has seemed open to banning fur in the past, the letter has been taken as a positive sign for the anti-fur movement.

If the UK does eventually prohibit the sale of fur, this could mean the end of the authentic bearskin hats worn by the Queen’s Guard, who are most often seen stationed outside Buckingham Palace. According to Londonist, the 18-inch hats are created with fur from black bears killed during Canada’s annual black bear cull—a large-scale hunt that helps keep the population under control—and the UK Ministry of Defence purchases up to 100 new hats for the famously unflappable infantrymen each year.

The tradition of donning such eccentric headgear dates back to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when Napoleon’s Imperial Guard wore similar hats to make them seem taller and more intimidating. After the French were defeated by the Duke of Wellington and his British army, Britain adopted the hats as a symbol of victory.

But even if the UK does prohibit fur in the future, the Queen’s Guard could still keep the custom going. After all, there are plenty of convincing kinds of fake fur on the market these days. And as for what Queen Elizabeth II might think about the shift, we’re guessing she’d condone it; she herself gave up wearing fur products in 2019.

[h/t The Independent]