18 October 2023

Rare Cape York drummer bird makes its own tools in musical pursuit

| Chisa Hasegawa
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The palm cockatoo is a large smoky-grey bird with a large black beak and prominent red cheeks. Two of them are perched on a hollow tree while one holds a stick.

The palm cockatoos are native to Cape York Peninsula and are the only bird species in the world that crafts their own tools to make music. Credit: Dr Christina Zdenek.A rare drummer cockatoo known as the Ringo Starr of the bird world also has its own sense of style when it comes to creating their tools, a new study from The Australian National University (ANU) has found.

The Australian palm cockatoo is only found in parts of Cape York Peninsula, north of Pormpuraaw in the west and Princess Charlotte Bay in the east.

The male palm cockatoo crafts their own drum sticks or seed pod tools and band rhythmically on their nest hollows to attract potential mates or mark their own territory. It is the only bird in the world that uses tools musically, and each male has its own drumming pattern.

The new study, led by ANU Professor Rob Heinsohn, showed another distinct artistic side of the birds for the first time, which he described as “icing on the cake”.

“We already knew they have highly personalised rhythms when they drum, allowing other birds to recognise who is drumming from a long way away,” he explained.

“Now we know there is also highly individualised expression in the crafting of the tool. Watching them whittling their tools down to the shape they want is like watching a master wood sculptor at work.”

A photograph of 3 different styles of drum sticks that the palm cockatoos craft.On a black background, there is a long and thick stick on the left, a thicker stick around half the length in the middle, and an even shorter one around quarter of the length on the right.

The palm cockatoos have unique preferences in shaping their tools. Credit: Daniel Appleby.

According to Professor Heinsohn, the use of tools among animals if rare on its own, but the use of tools for musical display is almost unheard of.

While their musical ability has been known for a long time, Professor Heinsohn and his team are the first to secure enough footage and drumming tools to analyse the birds known for being shy and elusive.

They did this by “patiently stalking” the birds through the rainforest with a video camera and collecting discarded tools after the males were finished with them.

“Each of the 13 male palm cockatoos had its own strong preference for tool type and for the shape and design of the drum sticks,” Professor Heinsohn said.

The team found that some males preferred seed pod tools, while other preferred to make drum sticks. Among the drum stick makers, some like to make them long and thin, while some preferred to craft them short and thick.

“It was this individuality that blew us away. It was as if they all had their own idea of what made the best drum stick,” he said.

2 round, brown seed pods photographed on a black background.

Some male palm cockatoos prefer seed pods as their instruments of choice. Credit: Daniel Appleby.

The palm cockatoo is the most iconic bird in Cape York, but as of late 2021, they are an endangered species.

The study has been published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B as part of a broader study of the palm cockatoo’s conservation needs on Cape York Peninsula.

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