Australian National University researchers find ‘master sculptor’ in drumming palm cockatoo

A bird in a tree

A rare and spectacular cockatoo known as the Ringo Starr of the bird world also has its own sense of creative style, new research has found. 

The palm cockatoo is only found at the top of Cape York in Far North Queensland and drums on trees by fashioning its own musical instruments from wood and seed pods in a bid to attract potential mates or mark its territory.

A study led by the Australian National University has shown another side to the parrots, finding that each bird methodically designs and decorates its musical tools according to individual taste.

“We already knew that they have highly personalised rhythms when they drum, allowing other birds to recognise who is drumming from a long way away,” lead author Professor Robert Heinsohn said.

A team of researchers have been examining the tools created from sticks and seed pods.(Supplied: Daniel Appleby)

“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.”

Professor Heinsohn said the team of researchers “patiently stalked” the endangered birds in Cape York for the research, which will be published by The Royal Society — an independent scientific academy based in the United Kingdom. 

He said researchers examined the birds’ discarded tools to find that, while some males preferred seed pods to drum with, others preferred long sticks, and some 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 drumsticks,” 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 drumstick.”

Three seed pods

Palm cockatoos craft their own seed pod tools and bang rhythmically on nest hollows.(Supplied: Daniel Appleby)

Professor Heinsohn said female birds also took an interest in the types of tools used by the males.

“The females watch every move, while the males demonstrate their immense bill strength while they snip through up to 3 centimetres of hardwood,” he said.

He said the birds did not tend to copy each other’s designs but rather taught their craft to their sons.

A sad plight

With fewer than 2,000 believed to be living in the wild due to habitat destruction and poor reproductive rates, researchers have long raised concerns about the future of the distinctive black bird with the bright red cheeks.

Two palm cockatoos sit in a tree

Palm cockatoos each have their own sense of style when it comes to crafting instruments.(Supplied: Christina Zdenek)

Its Queensland conservation status was upgraded from vulnerable to endangered in late 2021.

They live in a number of colonies on both sides of Cape York, about 10 hours’ drive north of Cairns, and prefer to nest in trees that are hundreds of years old.

The largest flock is found in the Iron Range National Park near the Indigenous community of Lockhart River.

Christina Zdenek from the University of Queensland has been studying palm cockatoos in Cape York for more than a decade and helped make the case to have the listing upgraded by the Queensland government in order to help protect the bird.

Dr Zdenek said the birds have the lowest breeding success rate of any parrot in the world.

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