Musings: Dancing birds

This page consolidates related posts. In this case, it makes sense to post the original item first.

Dancing birds

May 6, 2009
There is a Follow-up item below, for May 15.

I keep separate mailing lists for science items and music items. Thus it is important to know whether an item is science or music. This is a science item. I know that because it is based on two papers in an upcoming issue of the scientific journal Current Biology. But it may take some convincing.

I first heard about this on the BBC news. So, let's start there: BBC: dancing birds. If nothing else, look at the top video on that page. But reading the page is really a good intro -- to the science.

Ok, aside from being fun, why is this actually interesting? Well, a basic characteristic of humans is vocal skills (e.g., speech and language). Humans also engage in dancing -- or, if you want to sound more scientific, "spontaneous motor entrainment to music". There are other animals with vocal skills; some can mimic what they hear. What is interesting here is that dancing correlates with this vocal skill. That is, animals that can imitate others with their voices can also dance. Such animals include humans and parrots, and apparently also elephants.

The key logical connection between speech mimicry and dancing is that both involve coupling auditory signals to motor neurons. That is, we -- or they -- hear, and then move muscles.

How do we know the birds are really dancing? One key experimental approach in the papers is to vary the tempo of the music, and ask whether the birds adjust their dance motions to correspond. They do.

As I was writing up this item, I received an e-mail from a couple of you on the same story, with another good link. The message was titled "I can Feel the Beat", and read "This recent news story brings to light another question: what separates us (humans) from the rest of Animalia? Well, apparently, dancing and enjoying music is no longer one of them... NPR: dancing birds."

I hope that most will at least look over the two news stories linked above. Both include videos, and both give a good introduction to the work.

The papers were accompanied by a two-page commentary, which I think many will find good reading. The author offers some interesting suggestions about why such dancing has not been observed in some other animals.
* Biology of Music: Another One Bites the Dust. (W T Fitch, Current Biology 19:R403, May 26, 2009.)

For those who want the science detail, here are the two papers.
* Experimental Evidence for Synchronization to a Musical Beat in a Nonhuman Animal. (A D Patel et al, Current Biology 19:827, May 26, 2009.)
* Spontaneous Motor Entrainment to Music in Multiple Vocal Mimicking Species. (A Schachner et al, Current Biology 19:831, May 26, 2009.)

Snowball, the dancing cockatoo, is a sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita eleonora). Look at Fig 1 of the Patel et al paper listed above, and you will see why.

Dancing birds -- follow-up

May 15, 2009
Original item is above, for May 6.

The idea of dancing birds has actually been around a while. The following report is from 1874, and I know it was a follow-up to earlier work. Dancing birds.

For an explanation, put your cursor over the word explanation. (Do not click.)

Note this is with a different type of bird, one not known to have vocal mimicry (oops!), but is at a much earlier age.

For another view: Dancing birds.

This file is also listed for a more recent post Animals counting -- more (July 13, 2009).

Also see... Bird brains -- better than mammalian brains? (June 24, 2016).

Return to the regular Musings page for these posts...
* Dancing birds (May 6, 2009).
* Dancing birds -- follow-up (May 15, 2009).

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