Palm cockatoos. Image: C. Zdenek

The rhythm of love

There’s something about seeing a musician perform on stage that’s just… seductive.

Believe it or not, the shy and elusive palm cockatoo, iconic to Cape York Peninsula in far North Queensland can relate.

Female palm cockatoos are attracted to drummers. But not only do males have to impress the ladies with their rhythm and beats, they have the added pressure of creating their own drumsticks before their performance.

It’s all part of the species’ courtship ritual that involves drumming, and a lot of calls and movements to attract a mate.

Drumming palm cockatoos. Credit: C.Zdenek

As a conservation biologist and evolutionary ecologist, Professor Rob Heinsohn from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society has been ‘bewitched’ by these majestic birds and their intriguing behaviour for 20 years.

“They’re my favourite bird in the world. They’re so majestic, big and beautiful. They have this big crest and these blushing cheeks. They drew me in visually, but then behaviourally they drew me in more.”

Their ability to drum has been known for a long time, but Professor Heinsohn’s research is the first that has secured the footage to analyse it.

“The male palm cockatoo makes a drum stick in front of the female palm cockatoo, which is a big part of the display,” explains Professor Heinsohn. “It shows how powerful his beak is and how clever and skilful he is, whittling it down to the right size and shape. He’ll then use the stick to drum in front of her.”

Aside from humans, palm cockatoos are the only species in the world that use rhythm to attract a mate.

“There is nothing really like it in the animal world.

“There are a few species that make tools in the context of finding food, such as chimpanzees, but these palm cockatoos are the only animals that makes tools for the purposes of display and for courtship rituals.”

Just like humans, drumming out of time isn’t going to attract a female: these palm cockatoos must have rhythm.

“The males have to be rhythmic to impress the females enough. Rhythm is an important part of the equation and it seems to be a skill that males have to acquire if they want to secure a mate. It usually takes 10 or 20 years’ practice.”

Palm cockatoo. Image: C. Zdenek
Palm cockatoo. Image: C. Zdenek

The research is part of a broader study of the palm cockatoo’s conservation needs on Cape York Peninsula where they suffer low breeding success and loss of habitat due to mining activity.

“Palm cockatoos are considered vulnerable to extinction, they’re one step away from being classified as endangered.

“The main problem they face, which we don’t fully understand, is that they’re very slow reproducers. The females only lay one egg every second year, and that one egg has a very low chance of surviving.

“We are hopeful that our demonstration of the palm cockatoo’s remarkable abilities will enhance their profile and help with their conservation needs.”

So, perhaps you should take a leaf (or should we say feather) out of the palm cockatoo’s book: if you really want to impress your admirers with your drumming, why not try crafting your own drum stick as part of the show?