Health/Sci-TechLifestyleVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 44

Wild male palm cockatoos rock out with custom drumsticks

Like teenage Romeos toting sticker-plastered guitar cases, male palm cockatoos show that romancing a crush with a love song isn’t just about music — it’s also about style.

Wild palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) craft bespoke instruments for musical mating rituals according to their individual tastes, researchers report in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Some males were drumstick devotees, others made a mix of drumsticks and seed pod instruments, and one unorthodox male marched to the beat of his own pods — he made almost no drumsticks at all. These individual touches have more to do with personal preference than with available materials, the team found, hinting that these rockin’ cockatoos’ mates might prize creativity or individuality.

This video from 2017 shows wild male palm cockatoos keeping a drumbeat during mating displays. New research by the same team now shows the birds’ choice of instruments is as individualized as their musical style. Adding distinctive touches to their instruments is not “a routine that is always the same in every animal,” says cognitive biologist Alice Auersperg of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, who was not involved in the research. “There is some element of innovation to it.”

If humans were birds, we might be something like parrots. Like us and our primate cousins, parrots have big, clever brains, complex social lives and extended childhoods spent learning from their parents. Unlike primates, most parrots aren’t known to use tools in the wild. And “most parrots that have been studied using tools have been studied in captivity,” Auersperg says. For instance, her team found that wild-caught Goffin’s cockatoos (Cacatua goffiniana) held temporarily in a research aviary, wielded sophisticated toolkits for foraging.

Wild palm cockatoos are a fabulous and fascinating exception. These striking, endangered birds live in parts of northern Australia and New Guinea, and they craft and use tools not to find food, but to find a mate — a rarity that stands out even in primate company. A male palm cockatoo puts on a musical mating display from trees in his territory. He sings, twirls and drums rhythmically against the tree, often using a percussion instrument, a stick or seed pod, clutched in his left foot. As part of the display, he crafts the instrument himself and the female watches as he snaps off tree branches and whittles them just so. Add in the birds’ dramatic black and red plumage and tall, spiked crests and you’ve got perhaps the closest nature can come to a rock concert.