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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