One of these was Aniruddh Patel of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. Patel kindly agreed to talk with me about his research on how humans process music. However, we didn’t talk exclusively about humans: our conversation also touched on Snowball, the dancing cockatoo.
“We did a scientific study," Patel told me, "where we slowed down and sped up the beat, to different degrees, and videotaped him – and he adjusted his dancing to stay synchronized. So it was a really clear demonstration of the sensitivity of another species to music. And another study was published where they found this characteristic in a number of other birds, so he’s not some kind of freak.”
Patel went on to explain that most animals – even intelligent ones like chimpanzees – have no apparent grasp of rhythm. But “vocal learners” like cockatoos and parrots seem to be able to pick it up.
“They did a study at Harvard,” Patel added. “And they didn’t find a dog or a horse or anything else that could dance – except for a couple of Asian elephants, which are also vocal learners.”