Scientists Study Headbanging Parrot to Learn Why Music Makes Us Dance

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Snowball the cockatoo.
Gif: Irena Schulz

Snowball the dancing parrot doesn’t just bob his head when he hears music. He headbangs. He headbangs with a lifted foot. He vogues.

You may already be familiar with Snowball, the sulphur-crested cockatoo who scientists proclaimed the first non-human dancer back in 2014 because he could move to a beat (poorly, yes, but much more coordinated than random movement). They’ve now analyzed footage of the bird dancing and found that he’s spontaneously inventing a diverse array of new movements. That’s something only humans and parrots seem to do.

“One would expect species that are closer genetically to humans to show this behavior, but we don’t see it in chimpanzees,” study first author R. Joanne Jao Keehn, research assistant professor in psychology at San Diego State University, told Gizmodo. “But parrots are unique. We think they have certain neural and cognitive capacities that come together that allow them, when exposed to music, to be able to dance.”


Please, watch Snowball’s many dances:

The footage comes from September 2008, when Snowball was 12 years old. His owner Irena Schulz filmed Snowball dancing but did not dance herself; she only offered occasional words of encouragement like “good boy!” according to the paper published in Current Biology. The songs he danced to were “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper and “Another One Bites The Dust” by Queen. Dance moves were defined as “movements that are clearly intentional but which are not an efficient means of achieving any plausible external goal, such as basic locomotion.” Jao Keehn explained that the movement had to last at least six video frames and occur twice in the video sessions to count as an official dance move.


Snowball invented 14 dance moves and two composite dance moves for you to try at home. The researchers called them body roll, counter-clockwise circle, downward, down-shake, foot-lift, foot-lift down swing, headbang, head-foot sync, headbang with lifted foot, pose, side-to-side, semi-circle low, semi-circle high, vogue, downward head-foot sync, and headbang/semi-circle low interchanged. Snowball typically continued the same move for less time than a human might, though Schulz noted that Snowball dances a little differently when someone dances with him versus when he dances solo.

The scientists wondered how Snowball came up with the moves. Either he is copying human dance moves and somehow mapping human movement patterns onto his own body, or he’s simply being creative. But scientists usually document animal creativity in the context of getting some reward, like food or a mate. Snowball has no reason to be creative, in this case, aside from the intrinsic joy of getting down.


Jao Keehn and the other researchers hypothesized that dance moves arise from the combination of five traits that parrots and humans share. That includes vocal learning, non-verbal movement imitation, forming long-term social bonds, ability to learn these complex action sequences, and paying attention to certain movements for communicating. Basically, dancing isn’t just a sign of intelligence, but a sign of complex social behavior. Schulz stands in as Snowball’s “flock.”

Another researcher not involved in this study agreed that it had important implications. It implies “that parrot’s dance behavior is not driven by a simple, inflexible mechanism but by some neural mechanism that can flexibly generate complex, varied behavior that coordinates with music,” Adena Schachner, assistant professor in psychology at the University of California, San Diego, told Gizmodo in an email. She said that the authors mention other parrots can dance, too, and Schachner would like to see measurements of these other parrots’ behavior to determine how common dancing really is and across which species.


Still, she said, “this again pushes us to think of parrots as capable of something that is deeply similar to human dance. In turn, this sheds new light on the broader question of why humans around the world—and perhaps parrots, too—have the ability and deep motivation to move our bodies to music.”

As for Snowball, yes, he’s still alive and hopefully still headbanging-with-lifted-foot. I desperately hope we see more from him soon.