Palm cockatoos drum up a storm

Move over Ringo Starr and Phil Collins. The shy and elusive North Queensland Cape York palm cockatoos are the ‘rockatoos’ of the animal world. And that makes University of Queensland School of Biological Sciences PhD student Christina Zdenek a roadie of sorts, having spent many months living in a remote site on ‘rockatoo’ research fieldwork as part of a study led by the Australian National University.

Christina tells her story:

Image by CNZdenek

Palm cockatoos – or palmies – are the earliest cockatoos to have evolved and the largest cockatoos in the world.

Only about 3000 adult birds exist in Australia, and breeding pairs successfully fledge one chick every 10 years, so they are particularly vulnerable to human activities.

One of my interests is documenting their rare drumming behaviour. They are the only species other than humans known to both produce music with a rhythmic beat and to manufacture sound tools – a fact we’ve just reported in Science Advances.

I’ve spent four dedicated field seasons – each of about six months – over a total of seven years involved in this challenging, often lonely,but ultimately very rewarding, work.

On average, it takes 100 hours of fieldwork to capture one palm cockatoo drumming event.

So you can imagine the amazing amount of effort to record 131 drumming sequences from 18 male palm cockatoos for our analysis, in country that is frequently flooded and very difficult to access.

Sometimes I would have a volunteer with me; at other times I went solo.

Palm cockatoos nest in tree hollows that can take hundreds of years to form.

I used a 10 metre extension pole to determine activity levels at tree hollows and I climbed to these hollows using single-rope technique to measure and inspect inside.

Image by W.Cooper

Image by W.Cooper

I lived simply in open-air, basic living quarters. One year I camped at an abandoned abattoir. Another year I lived in a two-walled shelter shed. It helps that I am fascinated by a variety of wildlife in the region, including the amazing diversity of venomous snakes.

So was it worth it? Definitely!

Images above and below by CNZdenek

We found that:

· males perform their drumming displays with regular rhythm (they do this with seed-pods they collect from living trees, or with drumsticks they fashion from tree branches)

· different males have different beats (tempos)

· these individualistic beats are consistent within one individual

· tool-assisted displays of drumming palmies have the key hallmarks of human music

This suggests the distinct possibility that preference for a regular beat in human societies had other origins before being co-opted into group-based music and dance, as we see in human societies across the world today.

Watch Christina Zdenek in action in a short documentary about research on the tool-using behaviour of the palm cockatoo in Cape York, Australia, The Drumming Bird – the elusive palm cockatoo.