Science

Palm cockatoos make their own drumsticks from twigs and use them to play sick beats

These birds are the only non-human species known to make percussive sounds with manufactured drum sticks.

An Australian parrot that makes drum sticks from branches has been named the Ringo Starr of the animal kingdom.

Scientists came up with the comparison after a seven-year study in which wild palm cockatoos were filmed drumming with rhythmic precision to impress prospective mates.

While song birds and whales may be natural music-makers, the parrot is one of the very few species known that can recognise a beat.

Professor Rob Heinsohn, who led the team from The Australian National University, said: “The icing on the cake is that the taps are almost perfectly spaced over very long sequences, just like a human drummer would do when holding a regular beat.”

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The drumming ability of the palm cockatoo was already known, but never before have performances of the shy and elusive bird been studied in such detail.

The researchers patiently stalked the parrots through thick rainforest armed with a video camera.

They filmed 18 male palm cockatoos drumming, each of which got into the groove in its own individual way.

“Some males were consistently fast, some were slow, while others loved a little flourish at the beginning,” said Prof Heinsohn.

Cockatoos.
(Christina Zdenek/ANU)

“Such individual styles might allow other birds to recognise who it is drumming from a long way away.”

A total of 131 recorded sequences showed how similar the cockatoos’ drumming styles were to those of humans.

The researchers pointed out that the parrots were not responding to an external stimulus, but generating their own regular beats.

They added: “Male palm cockatoos… appear to be more like solo musical artists or the beat setters of musical ensembles, for example, drummers in western rock bands, who have their own internalised notion of a regular pulse, and then generate the motor pattern that creates the beat.

“In humans, this beat may, in turn, be entrained to by other individuals, but we have no evidence that other palm cockatoos respond in any way to the rhythms produced by males when they perform their drumming display.”

The bird is the only non-human species known to make percussive sounds with manufactured drum sticks.

The parrots could shed light on the origins of human drumming, which may also have started as a sexual display before becoming an activity promoting group social interaction, said the scientists.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

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Science