Science Shows That Snowball the Cockatoo Has 14 Different Dance Moves: The Vogue, Headbang & More

We humans think we invent­ed every­thing.

The wheel…

The print­ing press…


Well, we’re right about the first two.

Turns out the impulse to shake a tail feath­er isn’t an arbi­trary cul­tur­al con­struct of human­i­ty but rather a hard-wired neu­ro­log­i­cal impulse in beings clas­si­fied as vocal learners—us, ele­phants, dol­phins, song­birds, and par­rots like the Inter­net-famous sul­phur-crest­ed cock­a­too, Snow­ball, above.

Ani­mals out­side of this elite set can be trained to exe­cute cer­tain phys­i­cal moves, or they may just look like they’re danc­ing when track­ing the move­ments of their food bowl or shim­my­ing with relief at being picked up from dog­gy day­care.

Snow­ball, how­ev­er, is tru­ly danc­ing, thanks to his species’ capac­i­ty for hear­ing, then imi­tat­ing sounds. Like every great spon­ta­neous dancer, he’s got the music in him.

Anirud­dh Patel, a Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­o­gy at Tufts who spe­cial­izes in music cog­ni­tion, was the first to con­sid­er that Snowball’s habit of rock­ing out to the Back­street Boys CD he’d had in his pos­ses­sion when dropped off at a par­rot res­cue cen­ter in Dyer, Indi­ana, was some­thing more than a par­ty trick.

Dr. Patel notes that par­rots have more in com­mon with dinosaurs than human beings, and that our mon­key cousins don’t dance (much to this writer’s dis­ap­point­ment).

(Also, for the record? That goat who sings like Ush­er? It may sound like Ush­er, but you’ll find no sci­en­tif­ic sup­port for the notion that its vocal­iza­tions con­sti­tute singing.)

Snow­ball, on the oth­er hand, has made a major impres­sion upon the Acad­e­my.

In papers pub­lished in Cur­rent Biol­o­gy and Annals of the New York Acad­e­my of Sci­ences, Patel and his co-authors John R. Iversen, Mic­ah R. Breg­man, and Ire­na Schulz delved into why Snow­ball can dance like … well, maybe not Fred Astaire, but cer­tain­ly your aver­age mosh­ing human.

After exten­sive obser­va­tion, they con­clud­ed that an indi­vid­ual must pos­sess five spe­cif­ic men­tal skills and predilec­tions in order to move impul­sive­ly to music:

  1. They must be com­plex vocal learn­ers, with the accom­pa­ny­ing abil­i­ty to con­nect sound and move­ment.
  2. They must be able to imi­tate move­ments.
  3. They must be able to learn com­plex sequences of actions.
  4. They must be atten­tive to the move­ments of oth­ers.
  5. They must form long-term social bonds.

Cock­a­toos can do all of this. Humans, too.

Patel’s for­mer stu­dent R. Joanne Jao Keehn recent­ly reviewed footage she shot in 2009 of Snow­ball get­ting down to Queen’s “Anoth­er One Bites the Dust” and Cyn­di Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” iden­ti­fy­ing 14 dis­tinct moves.

Accord­ing to her research, his favorites are Vogue, Head-Foot Sync, and Head­bang with Lift­ed Foot.

If you’ve been hug­ging the wall since mid­dle school, maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, fol­lowed by an avian danc­ing les­son.

How did Snow­ball come by his aston­ish­ing rug-cut­ting con­fi­dence? Cer­tain­ly not by watch­ing instruc­tion­al videos on YouTube. His human com­pan­ion Schulz dances with him occa­sion­al­ly, but does­n’t attempt to teach him her moves, which she describes as “lim­it­ed.”

Much like two human part­ners, they’re not always doing the same thing at the same time.

And the chore­og­ra­phy is pure­ly Snowball’s.

As Patel told The Har­vard Gazette:

It’s actu­al­ly a com­plex cog­ni­tive act that involves choos­ing among dif­fer­ent types of pos­si­ble move­ment options. It’s exact­ly how we think of human danc­ing.

If he is actu­al­ly com­ing up with some of this stuff by him­self, it’s an incred­i­ble exam­ple of ani­mal cre­ativ­i­ty because he’s not doing this to get food; he’s not doing this to get a mat­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty, both of which are often moti­va­tions in exam­ples of cre­ative behav­ior in oth­er species.

You can read more sci­ence-based arti­cles inspired by Snow­ball and watch some of his many pub­lic appear­ances on the not-for-prof­it, dona­tion-based sanc­tu­ary Bird Lovers Only’s web­site.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why We Dance: An Ani­mat­ed Video Explains the Sci­ence Behind Why We Bust a Move

The Strange Danc­ing Plague of 1518: When Hun­dreds of Peo­ple in France Could Not Stop Danc­ing for Months

Explore an Inter­ac­tive Ver­sion of The Wall of Birds, a 2,500 Square-Foot Mur­al That Doc­u­ments the Evo­lu­tion of Birds Over 375 Mil­lion Years

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Sep­tem­ber 9 for anoth­er sea­son of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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