Deep in the rainforests of northern Australia, there’s a beat that tends to pack a lot of heat, literally.
In the quest for the ideal mate, the male palm cockatoo has long keyed into a very basic and universal truth: Chicks dig drummers.
So the bird, among the biggest cockatoo species in the world, plies its percussive art — using custom-crafted sticks against tree hollows — to charm the ladies.
From there, things take a decided turn for the birds and the beats.
While this cockatoo’s mating song has long fascinated nature lovers and tourists alike, it’s only recently that scientists have bent a serious ear to the unlikely beat.
Their findings, published this week in the journal Science Advances, suggests the big birds may not only be a lot more ingenious than we ever thought, they also have a kind of rock star sensibility that transcends the species.
For one thing, the researchers noted, the palm cockatoo is the only animal (besides humans) known to use tools to produce a deliberate rhythm. Of course, we know chimpanzees are crafty — they bang sticks and stones to their own wobbly beat. But palm cockatoos actually painstakingly winnow down sticks to make their instruments, often throwing away branches that aren’t up to snuff.
Making sweet, sweet music
"Basically the male cockatoo is showing off his prowess at making the drumstick, and then how cleverly he can use that drumstick," lead study author Robert Heinsohn told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
For the study, scientists had to become a lot like groupies, tracking down the birds — notorious for giving secret shows far from prying humans — and filming their shows.
The results, taken from 131 unique drumming sessions, suggested male cockatoos weren’t throwing out random beats just to get attention.
They were crafting music, with carefully considered patterns.
"It seems that they are open to the pleasure of rhythm, just like humans," Heinsohn observed in an interview with National Geographic.
And, as the study notes, the cockatoos have a keen sense of their audience — 70 percent of the time, the males would only drum when ladies were nearby.
In fact, they really rock out when the female cockatoos are out.
The males puff up their chests, whistle and offer a showman-like shriek to the ladies in the crowd.
Scientists didn’t observe how female birds responded to each performance, but amid all that rock star flair, it’s hard to imagine at least one audience member didn't head backstage afterwards.