A unique non-human model for the evolution of musical tool use: drumming by the palm cockatoo

A project undertaken at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, and supervised by Robert Heinsohn and Naomi Langmore

While there is growing evidence of a valid and useful analogy between human song and the song of whales, birds and seals, there are no comparable studies of the production of instrumental music by non-human species. This reflects a virtual absence of instrument manufacture and instrumental music production in non-human species. However, one species has been repeatedly identified as a likely candidate; the palm cockatoo Probosciger aterrimus. As far as we can discover, this is the only non-human species that manufactures and uses a musical instrument, or ‘sound tool’. Palm cockatoos manufacture a ‘drumstick’, by breaking off a living branch, stripping off the foliage and trimming it to the appropriate length. They then grasp the drumstick in their foot and beat it against a hollow trunk making a sound that is audible at over 100 m.

We studied drumming in palm cockatoos using several different approaches. The phenomenon is remarkable, not only for the performance itself, but also because the cockatoo manufactures the musical instrument. The manufacture and use of tools requires complex cognition, and this may pose a major constraint on the production of instrumental music in non-human species. With the expert field assistance of C Zdenek we recorded over 45 sessions of palm cockatoo drumming and collected over 30 drum sticks for analysis. Our analyses of sound recordings and videos of tool making and drumming behaviour are allowing us to explore 1. the evolution of complex cognition through analysis of tool manufacture in palm cockatoos, and 2. whether palm cockatoo drumming is fully analogous to human instrumental music.

Figure 1. A male palm cockatoo with drum stick at nest hollow. (Photo: Martin Willis)