Cockatoo choreographs his own dance moves, researchers believe

New study of Snowball the prancing parrot points to bird at peak of his creative powers

When Snowball the sulphur-crested cockatoo revealed his first dance moves a decade ago he became an instant sensation. The foot-tapping, head-bobbing bird boogied his way on to TV talkshows and commercials and won an impressive internet audience.

But that was merely the start. A new study of the prancing parrot points to a bird at the peak of his creative powers. In performances conducted from the back of an armchair, Snowball pulled 14 distinct moves a repertoire that would put many humans to shame.

Footage of Snowball in action shows him smashing Another One Bites the Dust by Queen and Cyndi Laupers Girls Just Wanna Have Fun with a dazzling routine of head-bobs, foot-lifts, body-rolls, poses and headbanging. In one move, named the Vogue, Snowball moves his head from one side of a lifted foot to another.

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Snowball dances to Another Ones Bites the Dust by Queen

We were amazed, said Aniruddh Patel, a psychology professor at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. There are moves in there, like the Madonna Vogue move, that I just cant believe.

It seems that dancing to music isnt purely a product of human culture. The fact that we see this in another animal suggests that if you have a brain with certain cognitive and neural capacities, you are predisposed to dance, he added.

It all started, as some things must, with the Backstreet Boys. In 2008, Patel, who has long studied the origins of musicality, watched a video on the internet of Snowball dancing in time to the bands track Everybody. He contacted Irena Schulz, who owned the bird shelter where Snowball lived, and with her soon launched a study of Snowballs dancing prowess.

While some animals can be trained to move in response to music, Patel suspected that anticipating the beat and moving in time was a skill unique to vocal learners. Unlike cats, dogs and monkeys, which are born with innate sounds, vocal learners such as parrots, dolphins and elephants, can learn an array of sounds based on what they hear in the environment.

Not all vocal learners are destined to be dancers, however. Patel suspects a number of factors have to come together for an animal to get into the groove, including an ability to learn complex sequences of actions and form long-term social bonds. Dolphins are a good contender, but Patel is not overly optimistic. They may not spend enough time bonding with dancing humans to develop dancing themselves, he said.

The first study showed that Snowball indeed anticipated the beat, bobbing his head and stomping his feet in time to the music. He kept on the beat when the music was slowed down and speeded up, his only encouragement being verbal praise from the sidelines.

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After the research, Schulz noticed that Snowball was experimenting with new moves. That piqued Patels interest: it suggested that the beat was not simply triggering Snowball to make stock moves, but that he was choosing which moves to make.

Snowball,
Snowball, a sulphur-crested cockatoo, dancing to music. Photograph: Irena Schulz/PA

Writing in Current Biology, the scientists describe how they filmed Snowball dancing to the Queen and Cyndi Lauper tracks three times. Joanne Jao Keehn, a cognitive neuroscientist and trained dancer on the team, then used frame-by-frame analysis to note all the moves he made. While Snowball had danced to the tracks with his owner before, her style is apparently rather limited, suggesting the parrot may have drawn on his own interpretation of the music.

He has this incredible repertoire. His movements to music are amazingly diverse, Patel said.

His owner dances and she is the first to admit it by nodding her head and waving her arms, so its quite plausible that some of these moves are things he came up with himself.

As impressive as the display was, Snowball didnt always hit the beat with some of his more elaborate moves. But Patel suspects there is good reason for that. He seemed to be trying out all these moves, so synchronisation perhaps wasnt his initial concern.

With Snowball living in a bird shelter, Patel concedes that theres a chance an enthusiastic dancer paid a visit and influenced the parrots creative process. But even that would be an impressive feat for a parrot, Patel said. Its either imitation, which is sophisticated enough or its actual creativity, which is incredibly interesting.

The researchers are now exposing Snowball to Billy Idols Dancing With Myself to see if he dances when there is no one in the room to offer encouragement. We are testing that now, Patel said. People are fine listening to music on their own, but when it comes to dancing, people want to do that with friends rather than put music on in their living room and dance by themselves. Well see if Snowball is the same.

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