Drumming Cockatoos Sound Like Human Musicians

Palm cockatoos are the only non-human species known to make their own musical instruments. C. Zdenek

Palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) are the only non-human animals known to create tools to make sound, shaping sticks and seedpods for drumming. A study of this remarkable behavior shows many similarities to human percussion, suggesting some features of the way we make music may be very old indeed.

Although we talk of birds and whales “singing”, it's generally a capella. Musical instruments are rare in the animal world (with a few notable exceptions) and restricted to objects they find, not make. Palm cockatoos, inhabitants of northern Australia and Papua New Guinea, are the exception. The Australian birds have been observed shortening sticks and reshaping seedpods into drumsticks, and using them to hit hollow tree trunks or limbs repeatedly.

The drumming is incorporated into vocal and visual displays to attract mates, but long drum solos are common as well. As a paper in Science Advances notes: “This behavior is remarkable because tool manufacture among nonhuman species is rare and almost always occurs in the context of solving problems related to foraging, but palm cockatoos use their tools only to make sounds.”

Palm cockatoos live in relatively underpopulated locations, so even though scientists have been aware of the behavior for more than a century, it is relatively understudied. Even footage of it happening was mostly collected for this study.

Lead author Professor Robert Heinsohn of the Australian National University recorded 18 wild male palm cockatoos and analyzed their drumming, focusing on the seven longest sequences recorded, which included between 27 and 92 taps, some drumming twice as fast as others. He showed the taps have non-random timing, representing a genuine rhythm. “Some males were consistently fast, some were slow, while others loved a little flourish at the beginning,” Heinsohn said in a statement. “Such individual styles might allow other birds to recognise who it is drumming from a long way away.”

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