Birds are not all a capella performers when it comes to musically wooing a mate. A male Australian bird has been observed to fashion a drumstick and play a rhythm on a tree while his potential mate watches and judges.
Palm cockatoos from northern Australia modify sticks and pods and use them to drum regular rhythms, according to new research published in Science Advances on Wednesday. In most cases, males drop beats in the presence of females, suggesting they perform the skill to show off to mates. The birds even have their own signature cadences, not unlike human musicians.
This example is “the closest we have so far to musical instrument use and rhythm in humans,” said Robert Heinsohn, a professor of evolutionary and conservation biology at the Australian National University and an author of the paper.
A palm cockatoo drumming performance starts with instrument fashioning — an opportunity to show off beak strength and cleverness (the birds are incredibly intelligent). Often, as a female is watching, a male will ostentatiously break a hefty stick off a tree and trim it to about the length of a pencil.
Holding the stick, or occasionally a hard seedpod, with his left foot (parrots are typically left-footed), the male taps a beat on his tree perch. Occasionally he mixes in a whistle or other sounds from an impressive repertoire of around 20 syllables. As he grows more aroused, the crest feathers on his head become erect. Spreading his wings, he pirouettes and bobs his head deeply, like an expressive pianist. He uncovers his red cheek patches — the only swaths of color on his otherwise black body — and they fill with blood, brightening like a blush.
Over seven years, Dr. Heinsohn and his collaborators collected audio and video recordings of 18 male palm cockatoos exhibiting such behaviors in Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, where the birds are considered vulnerable because of aluminum ore mining. …
Nearly 70 percent of the time, males drummed with a female present. Palm cockatoos are mostly monogamous, but males have to keep proving themselves to choosy females — on average, palm cockatoo pairs successfully fledge a chick only once every decade, so the stakes are high.
The researchers don’t yet know whether females prefer certain rhythms over others. But if a male is delivering an effective performance, the female comes over and mirrors his movements. The birds sway together and gently preen each other’s feathers, an act of pair-bonding that helps them prepare for breeding.
“The large smoky-grey parrots fashion thick sticks from branches, grip them with their feet and bang them on trunks and tree hollows, all the while displaying to females,” said Professor Rob Heinsohn, from the Australian National University.
“The icing on the cake is that the taps are almost perfectly spaced over very long sequences, just like a human drummer would do when holding a regular beat,” he added.
Here is the abstract from the published article: Tool-assisted rhythmic drumming in palm cockatoos shares key elements of human instrumental music:
All human societies have music with a rhythmic “beat,” typically produced with percussive instruments such as drums. The set of capacities that allows humans to produce and perceive music appears to be deeply rooted in human biology, but an understanding of its evolutionary origins requires cross-taxa comparisons. We show that drumming by palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) shares the key rudiments of human instrumental music, including manufacture of a sound tool, performance in a consistent context, regular beat production, repeated components, and individual styles. Over 131 drumming sequences produced by 18 males, the beats occurred at nonrandom, regular intervals, yet individual males differed significantly in the shape parameters describing the distribution of their beat patterns, indicating individual drumming styles. Autocorrelation analyses of the longest drumming sequences further showed that they were highly regular and predictable like human music. These discoveries provide a rare comparative perspective on the evolution of rhythmicity and instrumental music in our own species, and show that a preference for a regular beat can have other origins before being co-opted into group-based music and dance.
Here is another video of a drumming bird performance.
None of the recorded shows rival human drummers yet, but the way evolution goes, who knows… in time palm cockatoos may be used by bands in place of human drummers.