Humans Aren’t the Only Ones Who Can Dance

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Snowball was a patient of mine for many years, and he’s since become famous for his amazing dance moves
  • Researchers wondered whether Snowball’s movements in response to music could be compared to human dancing or were simply the result of innate movements
  • Researchers played the songs "Another One Bites the Dust" and "Girls Just Want to Have Fun” for Snowball three times each, totaling 23 minutes of dance time
  • The researchers recorded Snowball’s movements, which were then analyzed, revealing 14 dance movements and two composite movements
  • In an earlier study, it was found that Snowball moves along with the beat of the music, spontaneously adjusting the tempo of his rhythmic movements in synchronization with the beat

In 2010, I featured an interview with Irena Schulz, founder of Bird Lovers Only, a bird rescue organization, and her dancing cockatoo, Snowball. Snowball was a patient of mine for many years, and he’s since become famous for his amazing dance moves.

What’s perhaps most interesting of all is that Snowball seemed destined to dance. When Irena took Snowball in from his previous owner, who was no longer able to care for him, the man brought a Backstreet Boys CD with him. A certain song was Snowball’s favorite, his previous owner said, and when Irena played it for him, sure enough he started dancing to the beat.

The previous owner said Snowball started dancing shortly after he got him and his dancing desires only increased, and grew more elaborate, over the years. Such a unique bird as Snowball drew attention right away, including from the scientific community.

Scientists Confirm Snowball Is Actually Dancing

It’s long been assumed that most species other than humans do not dance, but Snowball suggests otherwise. Still, researchers wondered whether Snowball’s movements in response to music could be compared to human dancing or were simply the result of movements intended to generate a specific reward or outcome, such as getting food or a mate. Researchers explained in the journal Current Biology:1

“Previous research has shown that parrots can bob their heads or lift their feet in synchrony with a musical beat, but humans move to music using a wide variety of movements and body parts. Is this also true of parrots? If so, it would constrain theories of how movement to music is controlled by parrot brains.

Specifically, as head bobbing is part of parrot courtship displays and foot lifting is part of locomotion, these may be innate movements controlled by central pattern generators which become entrained by auditory rhythms, without the involvement of complex motor planning. This would be unlike humans, where movement to music engages cortical networks including frontal and parietal areas.”

In an earlier study, it was found that Snowball, a Sulphur-crested cockatoo, does, in fact, move along with the beat of the music, spontaneously adjusting the tempo of his rhythmic movements in synchronization with the beat.2 The new study builds on this, showing that not only does Snowball have rhythm, but he also comes up with new dance moves when he hears different songs, hinting that his capacity for dance may be much more like humans’ than researchers first imagined.

Cockatoo Has Diverse Dance Moves

For the study, researchers played the songs "Another One Bites the Dust" and "Girls Just Want to Have Fun” for Snowball three times each, totaling 23 minutes of dance time. Snowball was in a room with Irena, who sometimes said words of encouragement, such as “Good boy,” but did not dance or show Snowball any dance moves.

The researchers recorded Snowball’s movements, which were then analyzed, revealing 14 dance movements and two composite movements,3 including the following (you can see them in action in the video above):4

Body roll

Counter-clockwise circle

Downward

Down-shake

Foot-lift

Foot-lift down swing

Head bang

Head-foot sync

Head bang with lifted foot

Pose

Side-to-side

Semicircle low

Semicircle high

Vogue

Downward head-foot sync

Head bang/semicircle low interchanged

"What's most interesting to us is the sheer diversity of his movements to music," senior author Aniruddh Patel, Ph.D., a psychologist at Tufts University and Harvard University, said in a news release.5 The diverse movements that Snowball made in response to the music, involving a variety of body parts, show that humans are not unique in their ability to dance.

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Why Snowball Can Dance

It seems that parrots share a complex ability to dance with humans, leaving researchers to ask why and how? Speaking with Gizmodo, study first author R. Joanne Jao Keehn, Ph.D., research assistant professor in psychology at San Diego State University, stated, “One would expect species that are closer genetically to humans to show this behavior, but we don’t see it in chimpanzees.

But parrots are unique. We think they have certain neural and cognitive capacities that come together that allow them, when exposed to music, to be able to dance.”6 This includes the following five traits, which humans and parrots may share:7

  1. Vocal learning
  2. The capacity for nonverbal movement imitation
  3. A tendency to form long-term social bonds
  4. The ability to learn complex sequences of actions
  5. Attentiveness to communicative movements

Taken together, it’s thought that dancing isn’t just a result of human culture bought rather is the result of certain brain regions working together.

The researchers added, “Rich diversity in parrot movement to music would suggest a strong contribution of forebrain regions to this behavior, perhaps including motor learning regions abutting the complex vocal-learning ‘shell’ regions that are unique to parrots among vocal learning birds.”8

In humans, dancing also takes on a social component, and the researchers are working to understand whether Snowball also dances differently with others than when he is alone.9 Snowball’s love for dance also hints at the intelligence and mental capacity of birds like him, which is important to be aware of if you’re considering sharing your home with a parrot or other bird.

If the idea is intriguing to you, there are thousands of parrots in rescue organizations in need of loving homes, but do thorough research first to be sure you understand that parrot ownership is a complex, lifetime commitment. I also strongly recommend every new bird owner (or owners struggling to keep the peace with their parrot) check out The Animal Behavior Center’s online training program for parrot owners.