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Bird Does Dance to the Music, Says Research Report on a YouTube Sensation

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August 24, 2009

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Can Snowball the cockatoo really dance? And does it really matter?

In his popular YouTube videos – including, one that has more than 3 million hits – the bird appears to bob his head, tap his feet, and slide side-to-side to the beat of pop tunes.

But when he busts a move to the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody” or Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” is the bird merely mimicking human nonverbal movement as parrots are known to do? And can the medium sulphur-crested eleonora cockatoo move to music across a broad range of tempi?

The bird does indeed spontaneously synchronize his movements to music, says researcher Aniruddh D. Patel who, with three collaborators, has studied Snowball’s dance moves.

The researchers videotaped and then analyzed Snowball dancing, comparing the bird’s movements to the beats of the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody” played at various tempi. Patel presented the results during a workshop at IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis).

“Indeed (Snowball) really was sensing the beat and dancing to it,” Patel says. “It is the first case of another animal beside a human . . . being scientifically shown to do that.

“He is dancing. He wasn’t mimicking people because there was nobody dancing off camera,” says Patel. “He is responding to the music. His head bobs were often really synchronized with the musical beat the way a child’s might be.”

While Snowball sometimes dances to his own rhythm, “he has these chunks of time where he is actually locked on to the beat,” the researcher said. “And, he can flexibly adapt to dance at different tempi like a person can.”

Patel delivered a 20-minute presentation of the study’s results during the Society of Music Perception and Cognition biennial conference held August 5, 2009, at IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis). Patel, a fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, is president of the society, a professional group for people who study the psychology of music.

A report on the Snowball study was published in the May 26 edition of “Current Biology,” online at http://www.cell.com/current-biology/ .

SMPC workshop attendees included Snowball’s owner, Irena Schulz, one of Patel’s collaborators. Schulz, president and founder of Bird Lovers Only Rescue, says she wasn’t surprised by the results of the report.

“I know firsthand what he is capable of doing and what he isn’t,” says Schulz.

“He always seems to try different dance routines to see which fits the tempo of (a) particular song better,” says Schulz, who lives in Schererville, Ind.

For instance, one of the 13-year-old bird’s dance moves is a slow pendulum-type sway that he reserves for slow songs, the owner said.

“When I’m dancing along with him for fun, he will pause and wait so we can sway in time (together). It is amazing to look in this bird’s eyes and see that kind of intelligence, where he is analyzing things like that.”

Snowball’s former owner actually relinquished him to the bird rescue center with a CD of his favorite music.

“We’ve seen birds dance to music before. There is nothing special about parrots dancing, but it was just how enthusiastically and uninhibited (Snowball) was during dancing.”

But why study a dancing bird?

Birds like humans have the ability to mimic sounds, the skill known as vocal learning and an important basis for learning to move to a beat.

Neurologically, the process involves coupling the brain’s hearing system with its motor system, according to Patel. Thus studying moving to a beat in birds could give us clues as to how this coupling works in our own brains, which may have relevance to helping people with disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

“We know that moving to a beat can help people with Parkinson’s and other types of moving disorders, but we don’t know why and how that works,” Patel says.

A dancing bird may have the answers.