New research starring YouTube sensation Snowball the dancing cockatoo spotlights the surprising variety and creativity of his moves and suggests that he, and some other vocal-learning animals, may be capable of some of the kind of sophisticated brain function thought to be exclusively human.
The white bird with the yellow-crested head became an Internet sensation in 2009 when videos of him grooving in perfect time to “Another One Bites the Dust” by the British rock band Queen went viral. To date, 7.3 million people have clicked on the three-and-a-half-minute clip and millions more have watched videos of the bird bouncing and bobbing to chart-toppers by Michael Jackson and the Back Street Boys.
But was he really dancing or just imitating his owner? Or did someone edit in music over his moves to make it look like he could dance? The questions troubled Ani Patel, a Tufts neuroscientist long interested in music cognition who had recently hypothesized that only vocal learners could move in time to a musical beat. He needed to know more.
“It was unbelievable when I first saw that video,” said Patel, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, who is working on a book about the evolution of music cognition based in part on his cross-species research. “I still remember it. I was staring at the screen and my jaw just hit the floor. I thought, ‘Is this real? Could this actually be happening?’ Within minutes I’d written Snowball’s owner.”
To test his theory, Patel and a team of researchers filmed Snowball while they alternately slowed down or sped up some of the bird’s favorite dance tracks. They watched as the parrot repeatedly synchronized his steps to the varied tempos.
“He predicted the timing of the beat, and he did this spontaneously without having been trained,” said Patel, whose 2009 findings were similar to those reported by Harvard researchers that same year involving the African grey parrot Alex and his ability to match his movements to the beats of novel songs.
Now, thanks to Patel’s new paper, “Spontaneity and diversity of movement to music are not uniquely human,” Snowball’s legion of fans have another video gem, a compilation piece featuring the parrot’s 14 different dance moves, some of which Patel and his collaborators suspect the bird came up with on his own.