Drum Solos are a Courtship Tool for Cockatoos

Fagjun | Published 2017-07-01 21:59

A photo of a male pal cockatoo drumming
[Photo by Christina Zdenek]

Scientists believe that palm cockatoos include some pretty sick drum solos in their courtship rituals.

There is new and groundbreaking footage of male cockatoos making musical overtures to the object of their affections. Researchers at the Australian National University in Canberra found that the cockatoos mostly performed their music in front of females, leading scientists to believe that males drum to impress females. The males use little sticks and seedpods as makeshift drumsticks when they want to impress the ladies. Researchers even found that the male cockatoos in their study had a drumming pattern distinct to each bird. The males even included calls, blushing, and raising their crest feathers to make their solos even more special.

Palm cockatoos are apparently the only species aside from humans that use musical instruments. Like us, they can also repeat musical patterns throughout a particular performance. This is a surprising new discovery that was quite a feat for scientists to make.

Tool Manufacture and Use

Only two known species in the world make tools to create music--humans and palm cockatoos.
[Photo by Doug Janson]

Discovering and recording these drum solos weren't easy. It took 100 hours for the researchers to record a single drum solo. That's certainly a lot of time and effort to capture just one event. The researchers managed to take over 60 recordings over a seven-year period of observing the cockatoos in the wilds of North Queensland. They were able to record 130 drum solos by 18 different males.

These drumming sequences were 27 to 92 beats long and no two sequences were alike. Some of the birds played a slow and steady beat, while others winged it with quick taps and variations. The researchers said that the birds seemed to play more like soloists or beat setters in musical groups. Thus, these birds had something in common with drummers like Phil Collins, Charlie Watts, and the late and great Keith Moon.

The footage also includes cockatoos actually making drumsticks to use for their flirty drum solos later. Thus, these palm cockatoos are the only species other than humans that are known to make tools for music. Other animals like chimps, gorillas, and bonobos are able to drum with their hands and feet, but they don't keep a beat and they don't make their own instruments.

Do the Drum Solos Actually Work?

Chimps and other species seem to only use tools for obtaining food and drink.

We can find tool manufacture and use in several other species. Chimps, for example, create sponges out of chewed up leaves. The chimps then dip the sponges in water collected in tree hollows so they can drink. However, chimps and other tool-using animals use tools to forage and catch prey. No other species have demonstrated the manufacture and use of tools for making music.

All these are indeed impressive, at least for humans. However, we're not the ones that male palm cockatoos are trying to impress. How do the females react when males try to impress them with awesome drumming skills?

Researchers say that the females don't react in any observable ways, which is definitely a pity. However, the drum solos may be working in ways that researchers haven't found yet. Other researchers are also interested in knowing whether there are cultural differences in drumming among palm cockatoos. Are there differences between cockatoos that live in one place and those that live in another? It may take some years again to find out.

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