Australia’s palm cockatoos are well-known for their unique love of drumming, but they don’t just have great rhythm – they also each have their own sense of style when it comes to crafting their tools, a new study from The Australian National University (ANU) has found.  

The male palm cockatoos, the animal kingdom’s match for Ringo Starr or Phil Collins, craft their own drum sticks or seed pod tools and bang rhythmically on their nest hollows to attract potential mates or mark their territory. Each male has his own drumming pattern.

The new study, led by ANU Professor Rob Heinsohn, shows another distinct artistic side of the birds for the first time, with each having their own preference for tool type, as well as the shape and design of their drum sticks. 

Palm cockatoos have individual preferences when it comes to their musical tools. Photo: Daniel Appleby

“This feels like icing on the cake, because it shows that each male makes his musical tool in a different way,” Professor Heinsohn said. 

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

“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.” 

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

“The females watch every move, while the males demonstrate their immense bill strength when they snip through up to three centimetres of hard wood,” he said.  

While the musical ability of the large smoky grey birds has been known for a long time, Professor Heinsohn and his team are the first to secure enough footage and drumming tools to analyse it. They did this by “patiently stalking” the birds – known for being shy and elusive – through the rainforest with a video camera and collecting discarded tools after the males were finished with them. 

The team found some males prefer seed pod tools, while others prefer to make drum sticks. Among the drum stick makers, some liked to make them long and skinny, whilst others had a preference for short and fat sticks.  

“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. 

“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.” 

The study also demonstrated that neighbours don’t copy each other when it came to drum stick design, but rather it was most likely males are teaching the craft to their sons. 

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

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