Drumming Cockatoos Keep the Beat Like Human Musicians

C. Zdenek
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."
"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."