Watching YouTube Videos of Dancing Birds for the Sake of Science

By Eliza Strickland | May 1, 2009 8:38 am

It may be the first example of a serious scientific study being launched by a viral video. Neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel was astonished when someone e-mailed him a link to a YouTube video of a sulfur-crested cockatoo named Snowball dancing to the Backstreet Boys.”I said, you know, this is much more than just a cute pet trick. This is potentially scientifically very important,” recalls Patel [NPR].

Researchers had previously assumed that only humans move in time to a beat, but Snowball appeared to bob and rock to the rhythm just like any dancer. But Patel still wondered if the tail-shaking cockatoo had simply learned one dance routine that happened to synchronize to the Backstreet Boys song. For his study, published in Current Biology, Patel made slowed down and sped up versions of the song, and played them back to the bird while Snowball’s owner videotaped the reaction.  They found that Snowball did adjust his moves to match the tempo. At slower speeds the bird swayed rhythmically from side to side, and when the beats came fast and furious, the bird erupted into rapid head-bobbing.

Patel’s research was paired in Current Biology with a second study, in which cognitive psychologist Adena Schachner also started with YouTube. To determine which, if any, animals could move to a beat, she searched the site for “dancing” cats, dogs, monkeys, birds, and so forth. She and her colleagues eventually analyzed more than 5,000 videos. “Imagine watching YouTube eight hours a day for a month,” she says. “That’s pretty much what we did. It was amusing for perhaps the first couple of hours.” In the end, only 33 videos really seemed to show creatures moving with a beat. There were 14 different species of parrots and one elephant species [NPR].

Schachner’s findings support Patel’s theory of how musical appreciation arose. In 2006, Patel proposed that brain circuitry for vocal learning gets co-opted to support musical-beat perception and synchronized movements to music. This would explain why humans and parrots can imitate sounds and move in time to a beat. But animals that can’t imitate sounds, including chimpanzees, monkeys, dogs and cats, can’t keep the beat. If Patel’s right, then other vocal mimics — including songbirds, dolphins, elephants, walruses and seals — should be able to get their groove on [Science News].

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Video: Aniruddh D. Patel, John R. Iversen, Micah R. Bregman, and Irena Schulz

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: birds, music, senses, watch this
  • Nick

    Snowball! I *knew* there was something special about that bird the first time I saw him. I guess I was right.

    And as for watching Youtube 8 hours a day for a month for dancing animals… what else is youtube for, anyway? Most people I knew spend at least an hour a day watching animals on youtube.

  • Roy Sablosky

    “Snowball’s owner videotaped the reaction.” The bird was probably reacting to his owner rather than to the music. This is a serious methodological problem, and it probably applies to ALL such videos.

  • Chuck

    Roy – All of the videos that were used in the research were of Snowball dancing while the video crew stayed still and just watched. There were many sessions done and all with him dancing by himself. And while he does like to dance with others, when music is played while watching TV, Snowball will be dancing away in his cage or on his perch. He truly loves to dance.

  • Johannes

    Sometimes it surprises me what surprises animal behavioral scientists.

  • Happy Phil

    Much like the movie, “Happy Feet”.

  • linda

    thats awsome i have a macaw, amazon my daughters, a red lori and a sun conure the sun conure (crayola) saw the video of a bird on u tube and it was she loves me like a rock.
    also led zeps dyermaker is his favorite song . mojo the lori tries to sing over the singer. the amazon sparke likes to sing la la la la la la into her foot like its a micraphone .

  • Esta Blood

    Fascinating to watch cockatoo Snowball dance, in perfect time, to music that has a strong beat! I can’t help but wonder how Snowball would respond to “aksak” rhythms (uneven rhythms)such as those common to many Balkan folk-dances, for example:
    Pajdusko (Bulgarian) 5/4 (2+3)
    Lesnoto (Macedonian) 7/8 (3+2+2)
    Racenica (Bulgarian) 7/16 (2+2+3)
    Dajcovo Oro (Bulgarian) 9/8 (2+2+2+3)
    Fatise Kolo (Macedonian) 9/8 (2+3+2+2)
    Kopanica (Macedonian) 11/8 (2+2+3+2+2)
    Acano Mlada Nevesto (Macedonian) 11/8 (3+2+2+2+2)
    Bucimis (Bulgarian) 15/16 (2+2+2+2+3+2+2)


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