New research has cemented the almost unparalleled singing skills of birds as it found that cockatiels are able to spontaneously join in with human whistling with near-perfect synchronicity. As well as being beyond adorable, the research demonstrates that these birds are truly masters of their singing voices, able to alter pitch and rhythm to effectively riff with an entirely different species.
Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the study put three hand-raised cockatiels to the test to see if these birds could sing “in unison” with a person whistling a melody, or at least sync up their responding song. Each of the three birds successfully learned to sing a marching sound as researchers whistled a melody similar to the “Mickey Mouse Club March”.
This particular ditty is made up of two parts, each consisting of 11 notes but separated by a pause. While all of the birds learnt the song, only two spontaneously began to sing in unison with the whistling (as seen in the phenomenal recording below).
The next step employed the help of a playback loop, to see if altering the length of time between verses changed the rhythm with which the cockatiels were singing. Sure enough, the birds were able to adapt their singing to remain synchronous with changes in pause length, pitch and tempo enabling them to keep up with what they surely felt was a banger, judging by their enthusiasm.
“I didn’t give the birds any treats to reward them for singing,” said study author Yoshimasa Seki from the department of psychology at Aichi University, Japan, to Vice. “They were joining in the melody for their own fun, and were very happy to do so.”
Seki believes the research to be the first published example (to their knowledge) of a non-human animal singing along to human music and synchronizing with its changing characteristics. Beyond being a great excuse to take a deep dive into singing cockatiel videos (some even sing opera), you might wonder what the academic value of this information is, but it’s Seki’s belief that learning about singing behavior in non-human animals could provide insights into historic uses of singing among humans.
“Singing used to be a form of communication for humans,” they said. “At a certain point, we started singing more for fun, but by studying these distant ancestors of ours, we can improve coordination and group work even among us humans.”
Interestingly, a similar approach hopes to get science closer to translating dolphin communication but in the reverse. The research centers around the idea that whistled human languages could share fundamental attributes with dolphin signals, so by looking at the two side-by-side we could one day crack the cetacean code.