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Male Palm Cockatoos Play Drums to Attract Mates

Palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) not only play the drums, they craft the sticks too, according to new research from scientists in Australia.

Male palm cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus) drumming on a hollow tree with a manufactured ‘drumstick.’ Image credit: Christina Zdenek.

Male palm cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus) drumming on a hollow tree with a manufactured ‘drumstick.’ Image credit: Christina Zdenek.

The palm cockatoo is a large smoky-grey or black parrot found in Australia and New Guinea.

It is the largest of all parrots, ranging from 49 to 68 cm in height. It weighs 500 g to 1.1 kg, with females ranging from 500 to 950 g and males ranging from 540 g to 1.1 kg.

Also known as the Cape York cockatoo, the great palm cockatoo, the black macaw, the goliath cockatoo or the great black cockatoo, the palm cockatoo is one of the loudest parrot species, making loud whistling calls.

Another way palm cockatoos communicate is by stomping noisily on a perch. They use modified sticks or seedpods to strike a hollow tree limb and create a loud noise that can be heard up to 100 m away.

The new findings, published in the journal Science Advances, show that the palm cockatoo drumming shares the ‘key rudiments of human instrumental music, including manufacture of a sound tool, performance in a consistent context, regular beat production, repeated components, and individual styles.’

“While songbirds and whales can belt out a musical tune, few species recognize a beat,” said lead author Rob Heinsohn, professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University.

“But the shy and elusive palm cockatoo, iconic to Cape York Peninsula in far North Queensland, Australia, plays the drums and crafts the sticks.”

According to the researchers, the palm cockatoo drumming is part of the species courtship ritual that involves a lot of calls and movements to attract a mate.

“The large smoky-grey parrots fashion thick sticks from branches, grip them with their feet and bang them on trunks and tree hollows, all the while displaying to females,” Prof. Heinsohn said.

“The icing on the cake is that the taps are almost perfectly spaced over very long sequences, just like a human drummer would do when holding a regular beat.”

He said the palm cockatoo’s ability to drum has been known for a long time but this is the first research to secure the footage to analyze it.

“This was slowly acquired over the seven year study by patiently stalking the birds through the rainforest with a video camera.”

The team recorded vocal and drumming displays by 18 wild male palm cockatoos in Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park and surrounding aboriginal freehold lands on Cape York Peninsula.

“Over 131 drumming sequences produced by 18 males, the beats occurred at nonrandom, regular intervals, yet individual males differed significantly in the shape parameters describing the distribution of their beat patterns, indicating individual drumming styles,” the scientists said.

“Some males were consistently fast, some were slow, while others loved a little flourish at the beginning,” Prof. Heinsohn said.

“Such individual styles might allow other birds to recognize who it is drumming from a long way away.”

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Robert Heinsohn et al. 2017. Tool-assisted rhythmic drumming in palm cockatoos shares key elements of human instrumental music. Science Advances 3 (6): e1602399; doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1602399