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  Dancing birds feel the beat
Birds can boogie to the beat, according to two new studies that found they bob their heads, tap their feet and sway their bodies in time to music.

The disco king of both studies, published in Current Biology is Snowball, a sulfur-crested cockatoo.

"You can see him dancing to 'Another One Bites the Dust' and other songs on YouTube," says Dr Aniruddh Patel, a researcher at The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California.

"He seems to prefer rock music with a steady beat."

Patel used one of Snowball's favourite songs, 'Everybody' by the Backstreet Boys, for his team's study.
Child-like dancing

While Snowball danced away to different beats manipulated by the scientists, they coded his movements from video and discovered the cockatoo synchronised his head-banging, body swaying and foot tapping to musical rhythms far more often than mere chance would predict.

Occasionally the bird would get out of step, which the scientists liken to kids attempting to match their movements to beats.

"It would be interesting to quantitatively compare Snowball's pattern of in-and-out of sync to children's dancing to music, to see what human age his dancing most closely resembles," says Patel, who hopes people won't run out to buy a parrot for evening entertainment.

The birds, he says, "need a great deal of interaction and attention from humans to stay happy."

For the second study, Adena Schachner and her team studied a dancing African grey parrot, along with Snowball. They too concluded that birds really do dance.

"With regard to the different types of movement, we thought it was incredibly interesting that Snowball had the capacity to move multiple body parts to a beat -- not just his head, but also his feet," says Schachner, a researcher in psychology at Harvard University. "This type of flexibility makes the birds' dancing seem a lot like human dance."

Schachner and her colleagues next studied thousands of YouTube videos showing animals dancing.
Vocal mimicry

The researchers checked to see which species had rhythm and could align their movements to musical beats. They identified 14 parrot species and an Asian elephant that appear to have this ability.

The common thread among all dancers, humans included, seems to be vocal mimicry, with dancing perhaps being a by-product of that skill.

Elephants would appear to be the oddball in the group, but they've been known to copy noises, like the sound of moving trucks, similar to how parrots can repeat what they hear.

"It may be that after that (vocal) machinery was in place, further selection and other cognitive machinery was needed too" for dancing, says Schachner. Additional studies are needed, however, to confirm the hypothesis.

As for Snowball, he continues to surprise owner Irena Schulz. For instance, someone recently sent her a CD of German polka tunes.

"We fell over when we saw him dancing to those!" says Schulz. "We never knew German polka tunes would inspire head-banging from a cockatoo!"
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