Birds Got Rhythm

It's bird week at Lab Notes, what with yesterday's blue tits and now this:

Just because one cockatoo named Snowball can bob and sway to the Backstreet Boys, as millions of YouTube fans know, doesn’t mean birds can sense musical beat and rhythm. As scientists are fond of saying, the plural of anecdote is not data. In this case, it was possible that Snowball had learned a specific routine that happened to go with a song, and not that he could dance in time to music.

But when neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla tested the bird, as he and colleagues report online in Current Biology, electronically altering the beat and tempo of Snowball’s favorite song, they found that the bird adjusted his bobbing and swaying to the beat, “spontaneously adjust[ing] the tempo of its rhythmic movements to stay synchronized with the beat.” It’s the first evidence that an animal other than humans can move in time to a musical beat. “If the music speeds up or slows down across a wide range, he adjusts the tempo of his dancing,” said Patel.

None of humankind’s close primate relatives do that, and despite some pet owners’ beliefs, there is no good evidence that dogs and cats do it reliably either. The finding that parrots can (as another study in the same journal also reports) suggests that the ability is related to vocal learning or mimicry, perhaps using the same neural circuitry: after all, complex vocal learning and dancing to a beat both require a strong association between auditory and motor circuits in the brain.

To see for yourself, go here.