I’ve always loved to dance. But a partner makes dancing way more fun — especially when your partner is a parrot.
One of my favorite dance partners ever was a sulphur-crested cockatoo named Snowball.
“He loves to dance,” his owner, Irena Schulz, told me when I phoned her to arrange a visit. “He’s like the Energizer Bunny. He keeps going and going and going!” When I traveled to Indiana to meet him, I would experience Snowball’s energy firsthand.
I first learned of the white parrot with the yellow crest from a YouTube video that went viral: Snowball was dancing to “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys. The parrot came to Schulz as a rescue (she runs Bird Lovers Only parrot rescue in Duncan, S.C.) but today he’s a celebrity. Since his YouTube debut, he has danced on “The Tonight Show,” “The Late Show,” “Good Morning America,” and made many more videos.
Bobbing his head, throwing his crest, high-stepping with his feet, the parrot is clearly having a blast. But he doesn’t just enjoy dancing: he is good at it.
Thing One to get right with dancing — far more important than grace or style or originality — is synching with the beat. This is what most interested me about Snowball’s dancing, because it bespeaks a quality of mind that most researchers had assumed belonged to humans alone.
Perceiving rhythm is an act so natural to humans that we tap our feet to music without realizing it. But it’s actually a sophisticated cognitive feat with a fancy scientific name: beat perception and synchronization. And it’s similar in many ways to skills we employ with language. After all, as Aniruddh Patel, professor of psychology at Tufts University, points out in his book, “Music, Language, and the Brain,” both music and language are composed of strings of organized sound, full of meaning for both performer and audience. Both powerfully affect emotions. Both have richly structured patterns of rhythm.
For our first dance, I selected “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” performed by the Tokens. The beat captured Snowball’s interest immediately. Snowball stepped onto Schulz’s hand for the short ride to the back of the gray swivel chair that is his favorite dancing platform and brings him roughly eye-level with his people. His yellow crest rose high; his dark brown eyes shone with excitement. He bobbed his head enthusiastically as he first raised one leg, then the other, in time to the beat. Schulz and I joined in, dancing a version of The Pony. Because I was new, Snowball kept his eyes on me. Was he following my movements, I wondered? No — I am quite sure it was his idea to wave his left claw twice, then his right one once, while bobbing up and down and leaning slightly to one side. By the end of the second song we danced together (“Come Back to Me” by David Cook) I was certain: It was I who was following him.
How can I be so sure? Because Schulz’s husband kindly videotaped that second song and e-mailed it to me. Watching a video can show you details you miss when you’re experiencing the event real time — as Patel, the specialist on music and the brain, well knows. Patel, too, came to watch Snowball dance, but it was the video that yielded the most insights.
Patel videotaped Snowball dancing to the same song in different tempos. He then played the videos in 60-frames-per-second time resolution and had them scored with the sound off by coders who didn’t know which tempo was being tested. Colleagues also analyzed video of birds moving to a beat (you’d be surprised how many dancing birds are on YouTube!), with the same results. His shocking conclusion: Birds are indeed capable of synching to the beat of music, an ability previously thought to belong to humans alone.
This shows us that parrots, and probably all birds, “are hearing the world in a very complicated way, similar to the way we do it. It’s suggestive of complex thinking,” Patel says. “Only certain types of brains” can perceive, create, anticipate, and synch to the beat of musical patterns.
Ancient tales, in endless variation all over the world, claim that birds taught humans to talk, to sing, and to dance. The Fang-speaking people of Cameroon claim African gray parrots brought speech to people as a gift from God; the Kachin of Burma still reenact bird-taught dances today. Music and language may be considered glories of human culture, but their twined evolutionary roots run far deeper than our short human history.
For me, watching the video Schulz’s husband made confirmed what I had felt at the time: Never before had I synchronized so effortlessly with a dance partner. I didn’t know the second song, so I expected my own dancing to be a little clumsy. It was not. We moved together as if in a mirror. And no wonder: I was taking my cues from a virtuoso.
Sy Montgomery’s books include “Birdology” and “The Soul of an Octopus,” which was a 2015 finalist for the National Book Awards. E-mail questions about animals to syandlizletters.com. Sy Montgomery’s books include “Birdology” and “The Soul of an Octopus,” which was a 2015 finalist for the National Book Awards. E-mail questions about animals to syandlizletters.com.