The Cape York, Australia, palm cockatoo is the largest cockatoo in the world. The bird shares a surprising characteristic with humans: musical drumming. ©Jim Bendon, Karratha, Australia, Wikimedia Commons
For many of us, music is so much more than just mere entertainment. We use it to wake ourselves up, to make our morning commute go quicker, to motivate us, to alleviate our worries and to make spending time with our friends more joyful. Sometimes, it seems like music is our constant companion.
Music is a feature of every known human society; anthropologists and sociologists have yet to find a single culture throughout the course of human history that has not had music. In fact, many evolutionary psychologists today make the argument that music predates language.
Recently, however, researchers discovered that another animal—besides humans—actually creates musical tools and uses them to repeat musical patterns; in other words, makes instruments only to create sounds. Such behavior is remarkable because tool manufacture among nonhuman species is rare and almost always occurs in the context of solving problems related to foraging.
These special animals are palm cockatoos, and they’re raising some very interesting questions about the role music first played in our own lives.
Playing the drums and crafting the sticks
In courtship displays, featherless cheek patches on male palm cockatoos turn bright red, causing them to “blush.”
The palm cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus) is a large, smoky-grey or black parrot found in the rain forests and woodlands of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, in Indonesia and in New Guinea. According to a study published in June 2017 in the journal Science Advances, it is the wild, Cape York, Australia, male palm cockatoo that is the first nonhuman animal to be filmed using tools that it created to produce sounds.
The birds typically use items such as a large seedpod or a branch they trim down to eight inches—the perfect length for clenching between the strong claws in their feet—as their drumsticks. While other animals have been known to make tools, it’s almost always for the purposes of hunting or gathering food more successfully, such as when a chimpanzee fishes for termites with a stick or cracks nuts with a stone. The palm cockatoo’s activity, however, is a whole new context for tool use in the nonhuman animal world: they use their tools specifically to create a rhythmic beat that is designed to impress females.
To achieve their groundbreaking findings, the researchers observed and videotaped 18 wild, male palm cockatoos who performed 131 drumming sequences—some lasting up to 30 minutes—over a period of seven years. They found that the birds’ drumming efforts were far more than the random bangs and clashes that many other animals engage in. For example, apes, including wild bonobos, chimps and gorillas, slam on trees with their hands and feet, but they don’t maintain a steady, recognizable rhythm. Other animals—most famously, Snowball, the Eleonora cockatoo (Cacatua galerita eleonora)—only bob along to rhythms made by others.
A male palm cockatoo shows off the drumstick he made. ©From the video “Cockatoos Become Drummers to Pick Up Chicks,” National Geographic
In contrast, computer software that converted the palm cockatoo recordings into spectrograms (visual displays of sound) and statistician consultations showed beyond any doubt that the palm cockatoos’ beats weren’t random, but rather were equally spaced apart, making them the first to deliberately set their own rhythms.
Moreover, the statistical analysis showed that each of the 18 birds had its own distinct musical style. Some preferred slow steady beats, while others favored faster, more varied rhythms. One cockatoo, who researchers called “Ringo Starr,” started his performances with a fast intro before settling into a steady pace. Others added flourishes to the middle of their “songs.” But all of the birds produced predictable repeated patterns, stated Robert Heinsohn, a professor at Australian National University and lead author of the study, which is the closest thing we’ve seen so far to musical instrument use and rhythm in humans.
The female palm cockatoos watch closely as their suitors perform their musical compositions and even scrutinize the manufacturing process of their instruments, which demonstrates the power of the male’s beak when he snips off the branch. If the female is impressed, she will join the courting male on his branch and imitate his movements by erecting her crest and swaying, bobbing and whistling alongside him as he drums. Sometimes, they’ll stop to gently preen each other’s feathers as they establish their pair bond.
Palm cockatoos are monogamous, and the female produces just a single egg every two years, on average. So, such displays are extremely important to these birds.
Female palm cockatoos produce just a single egg every two years, so male drumming displays are crucial. ©Jim Bendon, Karratha, Australia, Wikimedia Commons
Shedding the light on drumming’s origins
Music with a rhythmic beat—usually produced by drums or other percussive instruments—is something common to all human societies, but it is not known why. The drumming palm cockatoos may provide some clues into the beginnings of our own behavior.
We do know that people often use drumming in conjunction with or as the basis for group activities, such as drum circles; and people may respond by dancing to drum beats produced by others. Which raises the question: could human rhythmic drumming have started as a courtship display? Although birds and humans are very different from an evolutionary perspective, the fact that mating display behavior of drumming has arisen in palm cockatoos suggests one explanation for how humans also came to have a sense of rhythm.
Studies are now underway to determine whether drumming improves breeding success for the palm cockatoos and to understand why only some of the cockatoos drum.
Do male cockatoos learn their cadences—slow and steady or fast and more variable—from their fathers? Do females prefer a particular drumming rhythm? These and other questions await answers. ©Jim Bendon, Karratha, Australia, Wikimedia Commons
Liking a steady backbeat
It’s clear that palm cockatoos share several key components seen in the human music creation process, including making sound tools (drumsticks), performing in a consistent context (in this case, mating), making regular beats and repeated components, and creating individualistic styles. These discoveries provide a rare, comparative view on the evolution of rhythm and instrumental music in our own species and on the preference for a regular beat.
Unfortunately, wild palm cockatoos in Australia are threatened by habitat destruction as the direct result of bauxite mining by the aluminum industry. Let’s hope the conservation needs of these birds are assessed and addressed, before more of the world’s music—from such creative cockatoo composers—is lost forever.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,