May 4, 2009

Why is this bird dancing?

This remarkable video of a dancing parrot left me asking one question: why?

More specifically, I wondered why, from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, would parrots evolve a penchant (and clearly a talent) for dancing? Clearly this bird is dancing -- and if I'm not mistaken is totally getting into it -- but why?

Well, there are three theories that attempt to explain the origins of singing and dancing in human culture. Perhaps these theories could shed some light on the dancing parrot.

Two theories are functional, suggesting that singing and dancing either serves to attract mates or foster social cohesion and collaboration. The third, put forward recently by Aniruddh Patel of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, suggests the whole thing is a "glorious accident," the by-product of an evolved capacity for mimicking vocal cues which we humans have evolved because that's how we learn to speak. Patel suggests that our capacity for vocalization is intertwined with the way we process and react to rhythms.

Further, Patel suspects that we should study animals who are known to be vocal mimics and see if they too exhibit behaviors that resemble dancing when exposed to rhythms.

Given the dancing prowess of Snowball, Patel may be on to something. And in fact, he has taken a great interest in the bird. Patel has concluded that Snowball is in fact dancing and believes it has the capacity to adjust to changing tempos. Further studies by his team have revealed that other vocalizing animals have similar capacities, including 14 different types of parrots and even elephants.

Now the only questions is, can we get Snowball to dance to something other than the Backstreet Boys?



Unknown said...

CBC Radio's weekly science program Quirks and Quarks also covered this (

Apparently Snowball can dance to anything with a beat and not just the Backstreet Boys. The team created their own "music" (basically putting together drum tracks) so that they were sure they were playing music that Snowball had not heard before, and could not have learned the "steps" to dance to that particular music before. Sure enough, Snowball can keep pace.

Robin Morrison said...

Why are possible explanations of a dancing bird mired in concepts of Darwinian necessity or side effects of vocal mimicry?

To me it's pretty obvious that this weird human invention, purposeful rhythm, the Big beat, impacts the bird's neurology directly and excites it. From there, it is a natural matter of harmonic entrainment.

Robin Morrison said...

As for why humans evolved rhythm: pattern recognition and expression.

The salient thing about homo sapiens is how so much of what we do is not for survival.