At the DFC ranch, we are endlessly fascinated by reports of animal intelligence — not least because we share our workspace with two remarkably smart canine co-workers (link: pic of Samson and Jill). So when I read news of an unusual kind of intelligence showing up in a representative of a really unusual species, I was just about as thrilled as he seems to be!
Snowball the Eleanora Cockatoo has long delighted the viral video viewers by bopping along to human bangers like “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Backstreet’s Back”. Tufts neuroscientist Ani Patel, while watching one of these early videos, immediately became interested in where this behaviour came from — was it spontaneous, and what did it mean for our understanding of bird intelligence?
In a recent paper in Current Biology, Patel and team recount how they filmed the bird dancing to his favourite songs, then analyzed each frame and categorized the distinct moves Snowball exhibited. They found fourteen of them, with clear favourites being the “Vogue” and the “Headbang with Lifted Foot”. Snowball’s complex choreography pointed the team towards a theory of cognitive flexibility that, in short, might mean birds respond to music and choose dance moves much as humans do.
“In the paper, Patel and his team list the five traits they believe are required for an animal to be able to spontaneously dance to music: vocal learning; the ability to imitate; a propensity to form long-term social bonds; the ability to learn a complex sequence of movement; and an attentiveness to communicative movements. Humans and parrots share all five. […]
‘If he is actually coming up with some of this stuff by himself, it’s an incredible example of animal creativity,’ said Patel, ‘because he’s not doing this to get food; he’s not doing this to get a mating opportunity, both of which are often motivations in examples of creative behavior in other species.’”
Absent these standard animal motivations, Snowball’s sole drive to dance seems to be… because it’s fun! As a science buff, I’m eager to dig further into what this means for birds and humans. But, as someone who also loves to bust a move, it almost doesn’t matter — like Kevin Bacon, Snowball’s fate is to dance, no matter what the science says.