Black palm cockatoo, palm cockatoos
A palm cockatoo pair perches near a tree-cavity nest. Photo courtesy of courtesy of Christina N. Zdenek

Birds and their mating rituals! Some dance, others preen, and still others perform intricate movements to attract the eyes of a favored beauty. For wild palm cockatoos, it is a creative display of personalized drumsticks that gets the attention of their female counterparts. A recent study published by the prestigious U.K. science journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B set out to discover which birds in the wild fashion tools to enhance their lives. Most cases of tool creation as a means of enhancement typically occur in captivity. In this study, it was discovered that male palm cockatoos in the wild – and only wild palm cockatoos – create tools to make their courtship display more attractive to females rather than for foraging and other methods of survival help. This gives us all kinds of interesting and imaginative thoughts as we dive into the drumming styles of these parrots.

The palm cockatoo, also known as the Goliath cockatoo, is a large beautiful parrot with smokey gray and black feathering. It has a large, distinctive crest and an equally large bill. Found in the northern region of Australia, these parrots are plentiful, with a Least Concern rating by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) agency. Add to their beautiful appearance a clever and intriguing play-out of allure for the female, the palm cockatoo is one amazing bird.

Dancing to His Own Beat

The study was undertaken by Dr. Robert Heinsoln from the Australian National University (Canberra, Australia). Heinsoln found that male palm cockatoos will gather and work with sticks and seed pods. But the male doesn’t create them prior to his show for female palm cockatoos. In fact, the male first does his best to produce an attention-grabbing selection of songs and whistles, all the while showcasing his worth by puffing out his chest and doing acrobatic turns on his branch stage—kind of like a parrot Mick Jagger.  As he continues his unique dance, he will then pull a stick or seed pod off of the branch, and create his own drumstick to further attract the female audience. After the show, the male leaves it to the female to select.

Heinsohl hypothesizes that this “ drumming show” serves to reveal to the potential female mate that the male is a strong member of the species, worthy of her selection. The drumming style is unique to the individual male cockatoo, which demonstrates a display of intelligence (like the drumming skills of legendary drummers like Keith Moon, Buddy Rich, or John Bonham). Also interesting is the fact that the individual male parrot typically creates sticks completely unique to the moment. Some of male cockatoos were found to appreciate the sound of a larger and wider stick, while others preferred to work with thinner sticks.

This study is important, as researchers are continually honing newly acquired information that reveals the complex nature of birds in the wild. What makes this study more effective was that it was observed not in a controlled environment but was fully observed silently in natural habitats to achieve an undisturbed state of discovery.

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