Did you know that palm cockatoos can make real music? They can create rhythm and sound with a musical instrument they create themselves. In fact, palm cockatoos have a repertoire of syllables, and this combination of using rhythm and sound at the same time is very much like human behavior.

In the rain forests of northern Australia, male palm cockatoos use their beak strength to shape and trim down sticks to create an instrument. This tool is then used to tap, create a beat, and put up a spectacular drumming performance to attract females. They may screech and use their repertoire of syllables to start a mating ritual. This combination of rhythm and sound is remarkably like human behavior.

It is fascinating that although palm cockatoos live in places like Indonesia and Papuan New Guinea, their musical ability has been recorded only in Cape York Peninsula. Over seven years, Robert Heinsohn, a professor of evolutionary and conversation biology and his collaborators collected audio and video recordings of 18 male palm cockatoos. In his article, These birds are the only animals that drum to a beat, Washington Post, Ben Guarino describes the ritual as “they drum against the edge of the tree hollows to make the sound resonate. At the same time they whistle and screech . . .”

The birds are shy and difficult to observe and study. Researchers recorded these musical events once every 100 hours. From studying these drumming events, researchers concluded that:

  • The rhythms were regular and predictable rather than random thumps
  • Individual rhythms varied and were distinctive—one of the birds stated with a rapid flourish that turned into a consistent beat, occasionally continuing for 14 minutes
  • 70 percent of the time the males drummed when a female was present
  • When a female approves the performance of a male, she mirrors the male’s movements bonding and preparing for breeding

Guarino, Ben. “These Birds Are the Only Other Animals That Drum to a Beat.” Washington Post (Washington, DC), June 28, 2017. Accessed July 27, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/06/28/these-birds-are-the-only-other-animals-that-drum-to-a-beat/?utm_term=.78b5c1919478.

Yin, Steph. “Drumming Cockatoos and the Rhythms of Love.” New York Times (New York, NY), June 28, 2017. Accessed July 27, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/28/science/drumming-palm-cockatoos.html.

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