Snowball dances on

February 8, 2013 • 5:23 pm

I’m going to name Snowball as this website’s Official Cockatoo™, since one of our readers is his road manager and the bird is, after all, the first nonhuman animal ever shown to be capable of “dancing” (defined below).

I’ve just been sent a hot-off-the-camera video of Snowball dancing in various venues, including the 2009 World Science Festival, where he boogied with the entire panel of scientists there to discuss “Avian Einsteins” (that segment is between 1:55 and 2:42 of the following video). I must sadly reiterate that the WSF is partly sponsored by the odious Templeton Foundation.

He also appears in a Taco Bell Commercial.

Now Snowball is more than amusing, for he’s a scientific anomaly. Wikipedia explains:

Snowball (hatched c. 1996) is a male Eleonora Cockatoo, noted as being the first non-human animal conclusively demonstrated to be capable of beat induction— perceiving music and synchronizing his body movements to the beat (i.e.,dancing).

. . .In 2008, the YouTube clip featuring Snowball was brought to the attention of Drs. Aniruddh D. Patel and John R. Iversen of the Neurosciences Institute, La Jolla. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Patel stated that his ‘jaw hit the floor’ upon seeing the video, comparing the unlikely and contrary-to-accepted-wisdom nature of a cockatoo dancing to human music to that of a ‘dog reading a newspaper out loud’. Between January and May 2008, Patel led research to determine whether or not Snowball was, in fact truly synchronizing his body movements to the music (as opposed to simply mimicking or responding to visual clues from humans present in the room at the same time). Snowball’s favorite piece of music was played to him at several different tempos and his reactions recorded on video for later analysis. The results, published in the paper “Investigating the human-specificity of synchronization to music” showed that Snowball was capable of spontaneously dancing to human music and also that he could adjust his movements to match the tempo of the music (albeit to a limited extent), a behavior previously thought only to occur in humans.  [JAC: see references and links below; there are now three papers on Snowball.] This ability is believed to be unrelated to the male Eleonora Cockatoo’s natural courtship display, which is described as “simple and brief” and involves strutting towards the female with crest raised, whilst bobbing and swishing his head in a figure-eight movement and “uttering soft, chattering notes all the while”.

Adena Schachner and other scientists at Harvard University have also studied Snowball and reached conclusions which, broadly, endorse those of Dr. Patel. Schachner also identified that Alex, an African Grey Parrot famed for his intelligent use of language may have also shared the ability to ‘dance’, in addition to 33 other clips on YouTube showing animals moving in time to music.Patel has suggested that the capability of both humans and cockatoos to move synchronously to a rhythmic beat may be a “byproduct of a link between the auditory and motor parts of the brain” as a result of both species’ ability to learn and mimic sounds.

Here’s the original dancing Snowball video, which I believe I posted some time ago. It’s now up to 5.3 million views:

You can see Snowball dancing to Stevie Nicks here, read our bird’s story here, and learn about how Snowball was acquired here. Amazingly, he was a rescue bird, ditched by two previous owners before his current mom, Irena, adopted him. Snowball’s travails are now over, though: he has a loving home, many fans, and some commercial endorsements (I only hope the publicity doesn’t cause his crest to swell!).

h/t: Su


Patel, A. D.; Iversen, J. R.; Bregman, M. R.; Schulz, I., and Schulz, C. 2008. “Investigating the human-specificity of synchronization to music”Proceedings of the 10th Intl. Conf. on Music Perception and Cognition (Causal Productions). Retrieved 2008-09-20.

Patel, A. D. et al. 2008.  Studying synchronization to a musical beat in nonhuman animals.Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Jul;1169:459-69. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04581.

Patel A. D. et al., 2009. Experimental Evidence for Synchronization to a Musical Beat in a Nonhuman Animal, Current Biologydoi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.03.038

17 thoughts on “Snowball dances on

  1. …a hot-off-the-camera video of Snowball dancing in…the 2009 World Science Festival…

    Apparently video cameras now come with a “keep warm” feature.

  2. This is a link to a video of Snowball dancing with the Lafayette Citizen’s Band and the last four minutes feature a song written by his “parront,” Irena Schulz, called, “Rescue Me.” I’m playing soprano sax, conveniently off camera and not miked. But you can still hear the sax so it’s all good. (I hope I’m doing this correctly so it doesn’t take too much bandwidth.)

  3. “I must sadly reiterate that the WSF is partly sponsored by the odious Templeton Foundation.”

    Ahh yes, the Templeton Foundation. They need a more honest tagline if you ask me. Something like …

    “The Templeton Foundation – Squaring myth with reality, one compromise at a time.”

  4. I was unaware, and have never heard the term “beat induction”, and its unique relevance to only human behavior. I must read more!

    The reason for my interest stems from the mention of Alex, the African gray. Animal behaviorists will be quick to recognize Alex’s name. Alex’s fame stems from his ability to identify multiple distinct characteristics and vocally respond to questions regarding objects. My own thesis work on 2nd-order discrimination stems from Irene Pepperberg’s success with Alex. From my intro,

    Prior to Pepperberg’s work, second-order conditional discrimination behavior had only been demonstrated in primates and mammals (Pepperberg, 1990). However, Pepperberg was able to demonstrate the behavior in an African gray parrot. The parrot, named Alex, had been trained in identifying multiple characteristics of objects. Pepperberg describes Alex’s ability:

    Alex could produce vocal (English) labels for seven colors (green, rose [red], blue, yellow, gray, purple, and orange), several shapes (2-, 3-, 4-, 5- and 6- corner, respectively, for football-shaped, triangular, square, pentagonal, and hexagonal forms), and seven materials (cork, wood, hide [rawhide], paper, chalk, wool, and rock [play-doh forms] and could label various items of metal (key, chain, grate, tray, truck [toy cars]), wood (peg wood and block), and plastic or paper (cup and box; Pepperberg, 1978b, in press-b). (p. 43)

    In combination, Alex was able to identify more than 100 objects (Pepperberg, 1990). In a demonstration of second-order conditional discrimination, Alex would be presented with one of four vocal questions in regard to any object within the assortment of seven exemplars. The question presented to Alex would take one of the following forms, “What color is [designated object]?”, “What shape is [designated object]?”, “What object is [designated color]?”, or “What object is [designated shape]?” (p. 43). Alex would then provide a vocal response to the question. In order to respond correctly, it was necessary for Alex to respond to two elements of the question regarding shape, color, or material. For example, a response to “What color is wood?” required a discrimination of material (SD1 ) and then color (SD2 ), thus demonstrating a second-order conditional discrimination.

    Alex and Snowball are special animals, helping to dispel the notion of human exceptionalism.

  5. “perceiving music and synchronizing his body movements to the beat” – that’s more than I can do!

  6. Snowball was not the first dancing cockatoo nor is he an anomaly. I volunteered at a parrot rescue for several years and many of the birds danced when music was played. 🙂

    1. Thank you for posting this, Allison. You are correct in that Snowball is not the first dancing cockatoo. What the scientific papers state is that he is the first non-human animal to prove that music is not unique to humans.

  7. I assume there’s an adaptationist just-so story that “explains” how this complex behavior evolved?

    What is it?

    1. Umm. . . Larry, I did not suggest that this was an adaptation in any way. So why the snarky comment?

      1. I realize that YOU didn’t suggest that this behavior was an adaptation. I’m sorry if you thought the question was directed at you. It was directed to anyone who thinks that all animal behaviors need an evolutionary explanation. There are lots of people like that.

        BTW, how DO YOU explain this behavior? Do you think it’s a spandrel? 🙂

        1. Hi Larry. In the wild, some male cockatoos exhibit a “mating” behavior which includes gripping a stick in their claw and rhythmically striking it against another branch to produce a sound which hopefully would attract an interested female.

          In captivity, it’s possible that they have used this agility to grab our attention. In general, cockatoos are very needy and require more attention than other captive-bred parrots. Without speaking for all cockatoos, I can state that Snowball® continues to dance because of the attention that he receives.

          We continue to observe and study Snowball’s behavior and one day hope to answer this question with more certainty.

          Irena Schulz

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