World Science Festival 2009: Snowball, the dancing cockatoo

Here’s Snowball, the sulphur-crested cockatoo that can dance to a beat.Prior to this, I had only seen the video of Snowball that’s on YouTube, and shorter snippets recorded by Ani Patel and his team who studied Snowball’s movements and measuring synchronisation with music. Previously, we thought that only humans could synchronise their movements with auditory beats, but Snowball and anecdotal evidence from other birds suggests that the club of synchronisers could be larger – and possibly include those animals that are so-called vocal learners, such as parrots.

There are more open questions than definite answers so far. One of the questions is of course, what can we say based on one specimen. Of course one black swan is enough to falsify the theory that all swans are white, and in that sense having one non-human animal able to synchronise movements with an auditory pulse is enough to at least put that “theory” or statement under threat. There is no clear consensus about what constitutes “synchronisation” and whether Snowball’s dance fulfills those criteria. It only synchronises for brief periods at a time, in bouts, but seems to be able to lock in those bouts for longer than one would expect if the beats of movement and music were non-related. And, it is able to do that in various tempi.

Another question is, is it really the auditory-motor connection, and also we need to establish what special training Snowball has had, and what the whole context of the dancing is. This video provides new insight about that, to me at least. Look at the owner’s instructions and movements – it seems that visual information and imitation (or just following the hand with eyes and the body will follow?) are crucial too. In the experiments reported by Patel et al in Current Biology, there supposedly was nobody there to dance with the bird, but after seeing this video, I’m less sure now about how impressive this bird’s capabilities are, and whether the suggested explanations of why it is able to do this are accurate. Fascinating case, nevertheless, and good work by Patel and others for picking this viral phenomenon up for systematic study.

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3 thoughts on “World Science Festival 2009: Snowball, the dancing cockatoo

  1. You are cordially invited to witness Snowball’s abilities firsthand. Many people are skeptical until they see him dance without any type of movement from anyone. Dr. Ani Patel came here to witness Snowball for the first time in April of 2008 and was convinced when he watched with his own eyes how Snowball would adjust to the different tempi while NO ONE else in the room danced along…not even a head bob.

    Snowball had no training whatsoever. Snowball began dancing shortly after his previous owner purchased him. He would bob at first, and then became more intricate as time progressed…as is the case with many parrots. Snowball has just gone above and beyond…most likely because of the positive response he receives from those who watch him.

    Irena Schulz
    Founder and President
    Bird Lovers Only Rescue Service, Inc.

  2. Dear Ms Schulz, thanks so much for your comment and the kind invitation! It would be really interesting to see Snowball in action, based on what I’ve seen in the videos, he’s quite a character!

    And thanks for that information. I’ve heard Ani Patel and John Iversen talk about their studies on Snowball, and as such I don’t doubt Snowball’s abilities, as they have been objectively documented and analysed in a transparent way.

    But, why Snowball can do that is a more difficult question, and even more difficult is to say what conclusions we should draw from it. The debate on music and evolution has picked up during the last few years, and of course these kinds of comparative studies provide very important, and very rare empirical evidence. And in this debate the aspects of social interaction, learning (imitation, vocal learning etc.) and motivation are of crucial importance, even though perhaps somewhat underrepresented in some accounts of human evolution.

    But, it’s great that we now know of Snowball, thanks so much for sharing his abilities with the world, and especially for letting Ani Patel and others study his abilities in a scientific way! I hope this example encourages others to come forward so that we get a better understanding of other animals’ abilities before ruling some of them to be uniquely human.

    Best, Tommi

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