BBC: Some birds have a remarkable talent for dancing, two studies published in Current Biology suggest.
(Go to the site to see videos of the birds. The videos don’t work for me in Firefox)
BBC NEWS | Science & Environment | Birds show off their dance moves
By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News
Some birds have a remarkable talent for dancing, two studies published in Current Biology suggest.
Footage revealed that some parrots have a near-perfect sense of rhythm; swaying their bodies, bobbing their heads and tapping their feet in time to a beat.
Previously, it was thought that only humans had the ability to groove.
The researchers believe the findings could help shed light on how our relationship with music and the capacity to dance came about.
One bird, Snowball, a sulphur-crested cockatoo ( Cacatua galerita eleanora ), came to the researchers’ attention after YouTube footage suggested he might have a certain prowess for dance – especially when listening to Everybody by the Backstreet Boys.
Dr Aniruddh Patel, from The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, said: “We found out that the previous owner usually listened to easy listening music, but he did have this one album, and he noticed Snowball bobbing his head to the Backstreet Boys.”
To test Snowball’s skill, the scientists filmed him as they played his favourite song at various tempos.
Dr Patel told the BBC: “We analysed these videos frame by frame, and we found he did synchronise – he did slow down and speed up in time with the music.
“It was really surprising that he had this flexibility.”
Another group, led by Adena Schachner, from Harvard University, also looked at Snowball, as well as another bird, Alex, an African grey parrot ( Psittacus erithacus ).
Dr Schachner said: “We brought some novel music that we knew Alex had never heard before – so there was no way he had been trained to dance to this music.
“We set up the camera and hit play, and we were shocked to see that Alex started dancing to the beat. He started to bob his head up and down.”
While Alex’s dance routines were not as elaborate as Snowball’s, analysis of the footage revealed that he was also able to match his movements with the music he was hearing.
Dr Schachner said: “This is a capacity that everyone thought was uniquely human, but we’ve found evidence that some animals can keep a beat.”
Song and dance
The scientists believe that the parrots’ apparent capacity for dance may be linked to another talent that they share with humans – the ability for vocal learning and vocal imitation.
They believe the part of the brain that evolved to allow us and a handful of other species, including dolphins, songbirds, elephants and some cetaceans, to learn and mimic different sounds may also be responsible for the ability to move in time to music.
To test whether this might be the case, the researchers turned to a vast resource of animal footage – YouTube.
From more than 1,000 videos of different dancing animals, the team found only 33 films that showed animals moving in time to a musical beat.
Dr Patel said: “These 15 species were all vocal learners – 14 parrots and one Asian elephant.”
After these initial studies, both teams now want to look more closely at different species’ relationship with music.
Dr Patel told BBC News: “No other primates, besides humans, have vocal learning, so there is a strong prediction that no other primates could learn to synchronise to music, even with extensive training.
“However, there are other mammals that have a response to vocal learning – dolphins are a notable category, and I’d love to collaborate with dolphin researchers to find out if dolphins can move to a musical beat.”
The scientists believe further research will also provide an insight into how our relationship with music evolved.
Dr Patel said: “Music is a true human universal – it is something we find in every single human culture.
“One of the questions we are asking is whether this is wired into our brains because of evolution, or is it because it builds on other brain systems.
“And this evidence builds on the fact that it is probably linked to other existing brains systems rather than being an adaptation in its own right.”
He adds: “You see here a fundamental response to music seen in species that normally don’t have a relationship to music in the world.
“They are clearly using a brain system that has a different day job, so to speak.”
Interesting. I have a cockatoo, and he will bop along to clapping or music but he usually needs encouragement from a person, who is also bopping.
This is him:
For folks out there who want to read the papers, they are available online here:
This is a wee bit old, but I’ll post this story just to raise awareness. It’s kind of sad to think about, especially since I’ve heard good things about the care that the birds receive at this refuge. What would happen to the birds if the refuge owners can’t pay the bills?
Edit: Okay, a quick search revealed that they got a grant to keep afloat.
1) Flood of surrendered birds, lack of funds threatens Island refuge
The World Parrot Refuge has room to house the unusually steady stream of extra birds that arrive each week, but not the money to pay for their care.
The Coombs sanctuary desperately needs funds by the end of March to continue caring for the flock of 700 birds. The B.C. Gaming Commission provides money but that endowment dropped about $15,000 this year in an economic downturn that refuge co-founder Wendy Huntbatch believes is to blame for the centre’s woes.
Parrot owners are surrendering their pets more often — more than 15 birds have arrived since January — and visitors have dwindled, and donations with them.
Huntbatch, a lifelong animal welfare advocate, is desperate for help and cannot accept a worst-case scenario if the centre runs out of money. It has provided a home for life for parrots since it first opened on Vancouver Island with 400 birds in 2004.
“I have no idea what would happen. I haven’t faced it yet,” said Huntbatch on Tuesday.
“We simply cannot shut down. You just suddenly get to a point where it’s like, ‘Oh my God, (money) is not there.'”
It costs about $300,000 each year to operate the 23,000-square-foot facility that allows the parrots to fly in large enclosures designed to mimic natural surroundings. Care for each parrot costs about $500 but medical bills can drive that cost up.
On average, about 100 parrots arrive at the centre annually.
For information, call 250-248-5194 or visit worldparrotrefuge.org.
Edit: Looks like they got some good news!
Grant, donations keep parrot refuge flying
Published: Monday, March 30, 2009
It looks like the World Parrot Refuge’s money problems are over for a while. A flood of donations recently was capped Thursday by a grant of $50,000 from the BC Gaming Commission.
The Coombs-based sanctuary provides a home for more than 700 birds. In the past several months, parrot owners have been surrendering their pets more often, said co-founder Wendy Huntbatch. Nine more birds arrived in the last week. Three of those are financially supported, she said, but two require medical attention.
An ailing cockatoo will now get an MRI to determine its illness, she said. By Thursday, the centre had received nearly $6,275 in donations, said Huntbatch, which is far more than what the refuge would normally see in such a short time.
In a month, the refuge usually receives about $10,000 between sponsorships, gate receipts and donations, but that figure dropped significantly over the winter. Huntbatch was overwhelmed by the support they received.
“You get caught up in the process of trying to make ends meet,” she said. “You don’t realize people really care. It’s absolutely huge for us.” Heartwarming stories have also filtered through to the refuge when people learned it could be shut down.
Two young girls spent their allowance making crafts, which they sold around the neighbourhood, said Huntbatch. They then got their grandmother to drive them from Duncan so they could donate their $20 profit to the refuge.
Another young boy donated his birthday money. Huntbatch figures as long as people keep visiting, particularly during the busy summer season, the refuge wil stay afloat. In the meantime, its website will expand to include more featured birds and sponsorship opportunities.
To contact Huntbatch, call 250-951-1166 or email email@example.com
Here’s a rather amazing cockatoo video:
I can’t imagine what the food bills must be like! Nor can I imagine all the work needed to clean up after all those birds. They do all look healthy and happy and are just gorgeous.
I like one of the comments the owner of these birds had: “Who would want to spend the right amount of time with a Moluccan? Another Moluccan!”
Cockatoo “Toos”day Part One: Keeping a cockatoo busy.
Okay, that’s a stupid pun. Today I am going to write about what kind of cheap, easy-to-prepare toys can be used to keep a cockatoo occupied.
Cockatoos are one of the more active parrot types and as such, they need a lot of toys and activities to keep themselves occupied with. I’ve been working at home a lot lately, and Mitri’s cage is close to my computer. I’ve noticed that he spends a couple hours each day chewing on the various enrichment items I give him.
A good cockatoo toy purchased from a pet store can cost anywhere from $30 to $50 (or more!). I do buy Mitri pet store toys, but I also give him other things and he actually seems to like the “junk” I give him over the more expensive items.
His favourite chew toys seem to be the popsicle sticks and metal-less clothespins I get him at the craft store. He will hold these in his feet and chew them or he will use them as back scratchers. I also give him plain sticks from outside. Before giving a bird wood from trees, check to be sure that the tree isn’t a species that is toxic. There are plenty of lists of bird-safe woods on the internet, so it’s easy to find out what’s safe and what isn’t. A lot of cockatoos enjoy chewing items they can hold, so I recommend giving cockatoos “foot-sized” sticks. It’s always worth a try! Pine cones can be a lot of fun for cockatoos as well. If bacteria or insects are a worry, just bake the pine cones (boiling pine cones will make the kitchen smell like turpentine).
Plain wicker baskets can also be a lot of fun for a cockatoo! Mitri just loves these, and I pick them up for him at craft stores. When giving a basket to a cockatoo, be sure it’s plain and has no extra paint or gloss on it, and be sure that it has no small nails in it. Don’t use the colourful easter baskets sold for children. The baskets are usually $5 or so each and Mitri obviously likes them and usually destroys them within a couple days. Some cockatoos can destroy them much more quickly than that! I often give them to him when he’s outside of his cage, but sometimes I’ll put one in his cage.
Some paper products are great for cockatoos. I give Mitri a roll of receipt paper every few days to give him something different to destroy. He’ll unroll the paper and tear it up. I get packs of five of these at Staples for about $5.00. I’ve even seen toys for parrots that can hold receipt paper. What I do is loosely tie the roll of paper to the inside of Mitri’s cage with a strip of leather.
Telephone books can be fun for cockatoos as well. Mitri loves ripping up old phone books. Phone books are safe because the inks in them are soy-based.
Note that I use the words “tear,” “destroy,” and “chew” a lot here. Cockatoos most enjoy toys that they can chew on and destroy. Wild cockatoos do a lot of chewing as well – some Australians who live where there are wild Greater Sulphur-crested Cockatoos have problems with the birds chewing on their houses! So, tt’s important for keepers of cockatoos to give their birds items to chew on.
Mitri also loves to chew on leather. One of the pet stores near my place sells strips of leather made specifically for parrots, so they were not treated with any harmful chemicals. I often weave those through the bars of the cage, tie pieces to the bars of his cage, or string pieces of wood with holes drilled on them on one, knot the bottom and hang it in the cage.
Above is Mitri’s cage and on the left is a piece of leather I weaved through the bars. I also tied the bottom of a wicker basket to the side of the cage. There are also a couple pieces of leather I strung some wood onto. There are popsicle sticks in one of the bowls and the tray on the top right has pieces of wood in it. The white thing is a parrot toy with big pieces of wood on it. Mitri doesn’t seem to care if his toys are big or colourful – he just wants to chew up stuff, and he wants results from his chewing. I try to vary the items in his cage that he has available. Sometimes, I give him boxes, and often those boxes have treats inside. Aside from loving toys they can destroy, cockatoos also like foraging toys (ones they can extract food from). Food can be placed inside of paper bags as well. Varying the type of food in them can give the cockatoo a bit of variety in his life.
Aside from items they can destroy, some cockatoos love items they can make noise with. I found this was the case when I tried to teach Mitri to ring a bell on cue. I held the bell up to him, with the intention of initially reinforcing him to touch it. Well, he grabbed it, and went hog-wild ringing it. It’s in his cage right now, and each day, he usually has at least one session of wild bell-ringing. This is fine with me, as the bell’s a bit quieter than his screeching. The video below shows him ringing his bell:
A lot of cockatoos love to swing so I often recommend offering a swing of some sort to cockatoos. A lot of cockatoos will hang on to a swing and flap to make the swing move. Mitri remains a bit apprehensive of all the swings I’ve offered him, even after he’s been able to observe them. I guess swinging just isn’t his thing.
Mitri also likes to dig, and often chews up the boxes and paper on the bottom of his cage and kicks out the mess. He often makes a digging motion while he’s on the carpet as well. Cockatoos who like to dig often appreciate having an outside enclosure where they can play in the grass and dig. A foraging tray of plain soil with seeds mixed it could also be fun for a cockatoo who enjoys digging. It’s been too cold for me to let Mitri outside yet, but it’s something I’ll try later. Maybe he’ll like digging in the grass. Of course, a cockatoo should not be allowed on grass that’s recently been sprayed with pesticides, and he’ll need to be in an enclosure he can’t dig out of or he’ll need close supervision.
I also give Mitri stainless-steel screws with nuts on them. He can actually get the nuts off of the screws. I give him stainless steel ones because zinc can be toxic to birds. I discovered that he was actually removing the nuts and even a few screws from his cage while cleaning the floor one day. I found several nuts on the floor in front of Mitri’s cage, along with a couple screws. I checked, and they had come from Mitri’s cage! I put them back and screwed them on tighter. I caught him the next morning removing a nut, so he obviously has an incredibly strong beak. My husband later rearranged things so Mitri can’t get at the screws.
Got a suggestion for a cheap item that can double as a cockatoo toy? Post it in the comments below!