Perfect rhythm and footwork: Meet Snowball, the dancing cockatoo

Snowball gets down with some new moves to 1980s classics

Snowball, a sulphur-crested cockatoo, shot to YouTube stardom a decade ago for his amazing dance moves — especially when the Backstreet Boys were on the stereo.

Now Snowball’s back in the social media spotlight, with a dizzying array of new moves that could put many humans to shame, and at the same time get scientists excited about parrots’ ability to process music and respond creatively.

His rhythmic body-rolls, headbangs, shimmies, and shakes were documented in a new paper published in the journal Current Biology this week.

“This shows for the first time that another species truly dances to human music, spontaneously and without training, just based on its own development and social interaction with humans,” senior author Aniruddh Patel, a psychologist at both Tufts and Harvard universities explained.


This isn’t the first time Snowball has rendered his services for the noble pursuit of scientific discovery.

An earlier study by Patel in the same journal confirmed our feathered friend could groove to the beat — though at the time, his dancing was confined to head bobbing and lifting his feet, actions long associated with courtship.

Soon after, Snowball’s owner Irena Schulz, who takes care of him at a bird sanctuary in Duncan, South Carolina, noticed he was making movements to music she hadn’t seen before.

The development was all the more remarkable for the fact that she hadn’t attempted to train him, save for providing some verbal encouragement with words like “Good boy!” as she swayed back and forth and waved her hands.

Did this mean that Snowball had taken his game to the next level and taught himself some slick new moves?

To answer this vital question, the scientists played him the 1980s Queen classic, Another one bites the dust and Cyndi Lauper’s Girls just want to have fun, three times each for a total of 23 minutes.

The study’s lead researcher, R. Joanne Jao Keehn, who is a cognitive neuroscientist, as well as a classically-trained dancer, then studied video footage frame-by-frame. She confirmed that Snowball had indeed acquired a diverse repertoire of 14 distinct moves, and two combination moves.

“Here, we’re looking at highly complex movements, many of which are not part of natural parrot behavior,” Patel told said, adding that this suggests cognitive planning of actions and the willingness to choose between alternatives to respond to a stimulus.

“I wish I could dance like Snowball,” he added.

Socialising with people?

While the internet is replete with videos of parrots dancing, suggesting Snowball’s abilities are far from unique, the ability is notably absent from primates, our closest genetic relatives, and from our close companions, dogs.

What sets parrots apart might be their unique capacity for complex vocal learning, which is then paired with other advanced cognitive abilities and the tendency to form long-term social bonds, the paper said.

Looking ahead, Patel and his colleagues are keen to explore this social context and determine if Snowball dances to strengthen his bond with people.

“When it comes to dancing, people don’t just dance by themselves. They typically seek out other people and they act socially,” said Patel.

To find out whether that is also true of Snowball, they are carrying out new experiments in which he is either left alone with music and recorded on camera; has a human present who doesn’t encourage him; or has a human present who encourages him and dances along.



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