Palm cockatoos: does Phil Collins have competition?

Tool use is rare in the animal world, and it’s almost always used for getting to food. Almost always; it’s been discovered that a bird living in Queensland uses its tool-making ability in a rather more creative way.

Music is an important part of cultures around the world and, while other animals are known to produce calls and songs, a sense of rhythm was long thought to be a human thing. New research on the palm cockatoo, however, suggests that we’re not the only ones with an ear for a beat.


Scientists in Australia spent seven years following and recording the elusive birds because no evidence existed of the reported drumming behaviour used by the males. Their hard work paid off, and they recorded over 100 drum solos produced by 18 musical male birds. The cockatoos create drumsticks from twigs and hit them against tree branches to attract females, embellishing their performances with calls, blushing and puffing up of their chest feathers.


One of the most remarkable findings is the consistency with which the males drum. They each appear to have their own preferred style – ranging from relaxed to fast with flourishes – but all of them keep a very regular beat. The researchers explain that this regularity requires a mental idea of the beat the bird is about to play, similar to what’s required of a drummer in a band.


Comparing other species’ biology to our own (called a cross-taxa comparison) can give us a useful insight into the origins of certain traits, so this new study may allow scientists to develop a better understanding of how human instrumental music evolved.

Heinsohn et al’s paper was published on the 28th June 2017 in Science Advances – the whole report is available for anyone who’d like more details about these feathered musicians.


(Cover photo: Jim Bendon/flickr)