Drumroll please: Queensland cockatoos craft unique musical instruments to impress females

Drumroll please: Queensland cockatoos craft unique musical instruments to impress females

Not only can Australia’s male palm cockatoos keep a beat, they craft their own unique drumsticks and pass the skills down to their sons.

New research from the Australian National University, led by Prof Rob Heinsohn, shows these colourful birds make their own unique musical instruments from branches and hard seed pods.

According to Heinsohn, a male palm cockatoo “ostentatiously breaks off the branch” in front of a female as a display of strength, before whittling it down to their preferred specifications.

Palm cockatoos perched on a hollow. Australia Photograph: Dr Christina Zdenek
Palm cockatoos perched on a hollow. Australia Photograph: Dr Christina Zdenek

Each male cockatoo has its own preference of material, shape and size of the drumstick he makes.

“Some leave them long and skinny … others make them short and fat,” said Heinsohn.

Once the display is over, the male simply discards his handiwork.

The palm cockatoo, found on the Cape York peninsula in Far North Queensland, has been known for its drumming since it was first observed in the 1980s. Each male palm cockatoo has its own distinct rhythm, which forms part of their mating ritual.

Heinsohn, who has been involved in palm cockatoo research for years, said that he “can tell who is drumming by the sound of the beat”.

Researchers first noticed that each palm cockatoo’s “drumstick” design was unique after collecting hundreds of discarded tools from males visiting their display tree.

“There’s no other bird that makes a tool to use in a display like this,” Heinsohn said.

Researchers were surprised that there were no similarities between the tools of nearby cockatoos, with each male having his own preferences.

Instead, designs are “passed down from father to son”, Heinsohn said.

“Sons hang around for a couple of years,” he said, during which time they closely observe their father’s craftsmanship. Even with careful study, “it takes at least 10 years to learn and to be good enough to do this”.

In 2021, the palm cockatoo was elevated to endangered status in Queensland.

Heinson said, on average, female birds lay one egg every two years and that egg is often taken by predators.

The complexity of their mating rituals has also contributed to the low birthrate.

In addition to drumming, palm cockatoos use head-bobbing and up to 30 different calls to attract a mate.

Though specific tool designs and rhythms are not necessarily more effective, females can be very selective and only “go for males” that are proficient in all mating skills.

Looking to the future of palm cockatoo research, Heinsohn wants to investigate whether males tailor their drumstick to produce a specific sound from their nest hollow.

These findings were published in a paper, Individual Preferences for Sound Tool Design in a Parrot, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society London.

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This article by Jerome Des Preaux was first published by The Guardian on 14 September 2023. Lead Image: Male palm cockatoos craft unique drumsticks to play a beat, study finds.

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