As pet owners, we often like to humanize the things pets do. If a dog licks your face, they’re kissing you; if a cat meows along to a song, they’re singing; and if a bird moves to a rhythm, they’re dancing. While the other actions may have been coincidental, birds have been found to have rhythm built into their system! Just one quick search will reveal tons of videos of parrots dancing to different songs but, of all skills, why do parrots dance?
Snowball: The Parrot That Started It All
The conversation on dancing parrots started with Snowball. Snowball is a cockatoo who went viral over a decade ago for dancing to the beat of a Backstreet Boys song.
What’s even more astounding is that Snowball wasn’t just a viral phenomenon, he helped pave the way for ground-breaking research on the cognitive abilities of the different parrot species.
With the research done on Snowball’s dancing skills, it was found that parrots can recognize and anticipate beats in the music and subsequently move to it. This is an ability that was previously found to be lacking in most other species, including our closest animal relative, the monkeys.
Birds have often been known and romanticized for their musicality and birdsong, with parrots, in particular, possessing the ability to mimic sounds. However, credit for their capacity to recognize rhythm is only a recent development.
Upon noticing that Snowball can dance, the team led by Anirudh Patel conducted a study to determine if it can react appropriately to different beats. Snowball and the research team were in a room with music playing, with all humans instructed not to react to the music. This was done to see if Snowball was only mimicking the humans around them when he danced or if he could do it on his own.
Upon playing the music, Snowball would soon anticipate the beat and bop along to it. When the song changes to a different beat pattern, Snowball would also change the rhythm of his movements. Research with Snowball continues, his ability to dance and recognize music helping lend more insight on how our feathered friends recognize the environment around them.
Parrots, Music, And Dance
Anyone who has ever owned a pet bird wouldn’t be surprised by Snowball’s dancing skills. Parrots love music and, with the help of studies conducted after the findings with Snowball, as well with the observations of bird owners, so much more has been uncovered on the parrot’s relationship with music and dance.
It’s been discovered that, similar to how we each have different personalities, each parrot has its own music preferences.
In a study with the Applied Animal Behavior Science journal, two African grey parrots were observed while they were exposed to different music genres.
While they both enjoyed classical music, they responded differently to other music styles. One preferred more soothing tones while the other preferred more upbeat pop songs. Their preferences were obvious from the way they responded to the beat, danced, and even sang along with the singers.
They discovered this by having the birds interact with two buttons that each played a segment from two different songs, I Don’t Feel like Dancing, an upbeat pop song by the Scissor Sisters, and La Petite Fille de la Mer, a soothing song by Vangelis.
While the parrots enjoyed both songs, each parrot clearly showed their song preferences with what button each bird repeatedly pressed. One always pushed for I Don’t Feel Like Dancing and the other kept playing La Petite Fille de la Mer. With this, each bird’s individual preferences were clear.
Theories Behind Their Dance
Previously, we believed that only humans were able to react to music for pleasure and that our brains had evolved in a special way to do so. The discovery that parrots can also actively enjoy and react to music has altered this theory.
A study from Harvard University observed over a thousand videos of animals expressing their musicality. Their results showed that only parrots and a specific elephant species were found to recognize music beats.
This ability is instinctual for parrots, especially since those included in the experiments mentioned were never trained to dance. That said, it’s also been discovered that you can train your parrots to dance to music, not just by bobbing their heads but also by moving their limbs in unusual ways. Snowball himself has been seen to have 14 dance moves regularly featured in his dances!
Dances Your Parrot Can Do?
Going off of Snowball’s example, his 14 dance moves were not present in the initial studies. Only after he was adopted from his bird shelter did Snowball start adding more dance moves into his choreography.
The researchers theorized that Snowball learned this either through mimicking the people and environment around him or through his actual creativity. With other parrots, nonverbal mimicry is an extremely helpful tool in teaching them how to dance.
In truth, the process includes less teaching and more encouraging the parrots to dance. Many parrot breeds enjoy music and can automatically move to it in response. The more shy breeds will likely avoid doing this in the presence of others while other breeds will only need some encouragement to dance. Nevertheless, teaching your parrot to dance is definitely in the realm of possibility.
Before you can teach your parrot how to dance, certain conditions must be met.
Parrots have short attention spans and will do what they want when they want. If you try to teach them when they don’t have the energy, they might associate dancing with negative experiences, making this journey more difficult.
The best time to teach parrots how to dance is when they’re actively seeking your attention. You should also be aware that these dance teaching sessions shouldn’t take long. A few 10-minute sessions sprinkled throughout the day will be much more effective than forcing your parrot to sit through long sessions in one sitting.
To make it easier for you, prepare some music that you’re okay with hearing over and over again to teach them. Unlike us humans, our parrots don’t get tired of hearing the same song all the time. Additionally, training with the same song familiarizes them with the action of dancing to a beat.
Once they actively seek your attention, play the music before catching their eye and bobbing your head. Head bobbing is the simplest move to do and is extremely easy to mimic. Keep repeating this until they follow along, rewarding them when they do.
It will take them around a week to learn. During that time, keep encouraging them to learn and always stay positive. If they’re not responding at all after some time, try changing the song to something they enjoy more. If you express frustration with them, it will discourage them from learning more.
Once they learn how to head bob, you can do some research on other moves they can do, such as wing stretches, leg lifts, and body dips. We also suggest learning from Snowball’s repertoire!
Their ability to dance isn’t just a party trick or funny content for a viral video, it’s another sign of their intelligence.
A new skill has been unlocked for parrots— not only can they see a full spectrum of color and mimic a diverse variety of sounds, but they also have the cognitive capability to dance and sing along to the rhythm of the music.
All it takes to teach them is the right timing, the perfect song, and a little bit of patience. Soon enough, you’ll find yourself playing some songs and see them bobbing along on their own!