Cockatiels, one of the world’s most favored pet parrots, don’t just masterfully mimic. In fact, a new study shows that they can spontaneously join in a song—much like humans do—drawing us closer to our winged ancestors than previously thought.
After teaching his three male cockatiels a rendition of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse song, Yoshimasa Seki, the paper’s author, played his birds a recording of the tune to see if they’d join in chorus. During his experiments, he found that the birds actively adjusted pauses, pitches, and tempos so that they wouldn’t miss a beat—much like a skilled singer singing in unison with others.
According to Seki, at the department of psychology at Aichi University, this proved there was much to learn from cockatiels, a distant cousin of humans 300 million years apart, about how humans collaborate on a shared task.
“Singing used to be a form of communication for humans. At a certain point, we started singing more for fun, but by studying these distant ancestors of ours, we can improve coordination and group work even among us humans,” he told VICE World News.
The last common ancestor of birds and humans lived over 300 million years ago. Though birds are a far more distant evolutionary relative to humans than chimpanzees or other great apes, scientists have long researched similarities between bird songs and human language.
Now, musicality and singing for pure enjoyment can be added to the list of shared traits, Seki said. “I didn’t give the birds any treats to reward them for singing. They were joining in the melody for their own fun, and were very happy to do so,” he said.
Though certain animals, such as orcas, elephants, and chimpanzees, have long been known to imitate human sounds, they must often be rewarded for their performance and can’t adjust their tempo, Seki added.
Mark Hauber, a professor of animal behavior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, said dueting between birds was long documented. But in this research, “what’s special is that it’s interspecific dueting between a human and a cockatiel—that is a special type of interaction,” he told VICE World News.
Dueting, though it may come naturally to humans, is difficult and requires perfect coordination, Hauber said.
“I think that birds have evolved song and copying, imitative learning independently of humans. But what’s amazing is that the rules, the lexical complexity and grammatical complexity that they have developed or evolved for that matter, are very similar to ours,” he said.
In addition to gaining new insight about the cockatiel’s musicality, Seki said research indicated how the birds actively tried to establish close relationships with humans as pets, much like dogs or cats do.
Though less cuddly than their canine or feline counterparts, cockatiels are known as some of the friendliest, most gentle pets. Besides joining in while you hum, cockatiels snuggle and chat with their owners, making them good companions.
Seki said further research needed to be done to establish why his birds would spontaneously sing.
But Hauber said previous studies that looked at starlings when a song was played showed the birds’ brains release opiates, so they experience a natural high and pleasure from it.
“The birds just enjoy singing. They enjoy collaborating, cooperating and coordinating,” he said.
Seki’s next goal is to teach his pets the theme song of the famed Studio Ghibli film, “My Neighbor Totoro.” When asked if the cockatiels could ever replace backup singers, Seki was reluctant to wholeheartedly push for the birds’ careers as musicians.
They’d do well in a recording studio, he said, but they’re “a bit unreliable” when it comes to singing live.
“They only sing when they want to, so they might not perform when the time comes for it,” he said.