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Drumming Parrots Show Why People Started Making Music

Palm Cockatoos have been filmed using sticks and seed pods to create their own brand of music. Their drumming forms part of their mating ritual which also features screeching. The birds are the first animals that have been observed using tools to deliberately make sounds.

Palm Cockatoos and Drumming

Professor Ron Heinsohn, a conservation biologist from Australian National University, has been studying the birds. He has observed male palm cockatoos performing elaborate courtship routines to entice female birds to lay eggs in their nest hollows. The birds combine many different sounds including screeches and whistles. They also blush when sexually aroused. The drumming is an additional method which the birds employ to appear attractive and is designed to impress the females even more than their screeching. Each male bird produces their own signature music.

Music and Intelligence

The music making demonstrates exceptional intelligence and suggests that the cockatoos possess cognitive abilities similar to our own. In other species which deploy tools, the tools are only used only in connection with obtaining food.

Unique Compositions

Professor Heinsohn’s study involved filming 18 wild male palm cockatoos. The birds used self-made tools and an analysis of their music revealed that the birds drum in a similar way to humans. They follow a regular beat and incorporate repeated elements. Some birds drummed slowly whilst others created a faster rhythm and so each composition was unique.

The cockatoos’ behaviour could help us understand why humans first started making music. Could we have explored music as a way to attract mates?

Solo Performances

The birds’ drumming did differ from human music in one respect. Humans tend to use a regular beat when playing in a group rather than playing individually. The birds, on the other hand, used a regular beat when playing solo which proves that such music can evolve as an element of a solo performance. Music could have evolved as a solo behaviour in humans before groups of people started to play together.

Only humans and parrots create rhythm and it would appear that in both species, females value intelligence and skill in their mates.


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