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.
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.
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.
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