By Emma Horn

Christina Zdenek checking a palm cockatoo nest Photo: A C Cowper

Christina Zdenek checking a palm cockatoo nest Photo: A C Cowper

PALM cockatoos are the rock stars of the animal kingdom! Not only do they sing incredibly well with an enormous vocal range, they can also keep the beat better than Bieber.

Seven years ago Christina Zdenek and a team of researchers from the Australian National University and University of Queensland began filming the parrots that were using sticks to drum out rhythms in tree hollows.

They looked at the spacing between beats and found that each bird had a unique rhythm.

They counted 131 drumming sequences from 18 different birds.

Drumming male palm cockatoo. Photo: C Zdenek

Drumming male palm cockatoo. Photo: C Zdenek

See the music

It’s always the male that drums, and in most cases it’s done with its left foot.

“Seventy per cent of the time when they’re drumming, they do it in front of a female,” says Ms Zdenek.

Palm cockatoos mate for life and a breeding pair will produce chicks about once a decade. So the researchers found the cockatoos drummed only up to two months before eggs were laid, when they were looking for their mate.

Male palm cockatoo drumming for nesting female. Photo: C Zdenek

Male palm cockatoo drumming for nesting female. Photo: C Zdenek

Bird brains

Male palm cockatoo breaking off 'drumstick'. Photo: C Zdenek

Male palm cockatoo breaking off ‘drumstick’. Photo: C Zdenek

Palm cockatoos are native to far north Queensland and Papua New Guinea. But it’s believed only the birds in Queensland learnt to drum.

“It could be that just some bright spark in the population at some point grabbed a stick to put on the hollow, and wanted to get the female’s attention,” says Ms Zdenek.

“He might have kept [drumming] it and then other males caught on, and all of a sudden you have the whole population doing it.

Beats and beaks

“Palm cockatoos have a very wide lower beak with a surface that can snip of a lower branch like secateurs so there’d be a very small percentage of birds around the area that have the capacity to do that.”

Because of this, Ms Zdenek says the drumming may also be a way to mark their territory.

“Those sticks are really hard to break with a beak, so the drumming could be a signal of their beak strength, and it could be to prevent another male from coming into their territory.”

Palm cockatoo in hollow. Photo: C Zdenek

Palm cockatoo in hollow. Photo: C Zdenek

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