Winter 2015

Boogie Bird

The cockatoo's ability to keep a beat may be as rare in nature as language is

When a colleague showed Aniruddh Patel a YouTube clip of a sulfur-crested cockatoo named Snowball seemingly dancing to the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody,” he was shocked. The bird appeared to be moving perfectly in sync with the beat. Patel, a Tufts associate professor of psychology and an expert in the burgeoning field of music neurobiology, had thought only humans could master that skill.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven animals closely related to us fail at very simple tests such as tapping in synchrony with a metronome. After a year of training, the best rhesus monkeys can do is tap a few hundred milliseconds after each metronome click.

Patel points out that parrots are one of the few species capable of learning and reproducing complex vocal patterns like humans, and he speculates that an ability to move to a beat may be linked to that. He notes that brain studies of humans and parrots show special connections between motor-planning regions in the front of the brain and sound-processing regions farther back in the brain.

Fortunately for Patel, Snowball’s tastes have expanded. “Now he’s a big fan of Lady Gaga,” Patel says.

Watch Snowball dance at

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