We’re guessing this chicken is of the rock ‘n’ roll variety. Photo: Jonathan Carroll Birdbrains they may be. But don’t underestimate the humble chook when it comes to having an ear for music. Dem birds have rhythm. They will move to music – but only if the rhythm is right.
Nanjing Night Net

And their genre of choice? The fast-paced bossa nova, according to University of New England animal behaviourist Gisela Kaplan.

When played the Brazilian beats, young chicks ran towards the sound at full pace. Their tweets were ones of happiness: sounds usually associated with finding food or being reunited with their family group.

When played the smooth, continuous legato sounds they became very chilled out. So much so they basically sat still on the spot.

The study’s control measure was white noise – sounds not dissimilar to what the chicks would have heard in the egg before they hatched. Curiously, this sound wasn’t greeted with much enthusiasm: the birds’ response was to crouch or walk away slowly. Some even made cheeps of slight alarm.

“They clearly discriminate between different rhythm and have entirely different responses to it vocally as well as in motion,” Professor Kaplan said. “You can clearly see and hear the difference.”

Working with Italian colleagues at the universities of Trieste and Trento, the chicks for the study were selected because they had hatched from artificially incubated eggs. This was to ensure they were a “clean slate” and had not been exposed to the rhythmic heartbeat or pulse rate of their mother as she sat on the nest.

The hatchlings were exposed to the music at between one to three days old while on a type of treadmill which could record and measure their movement.

The birds’ responses revealed both an innate understanding of rhythm and a capacity to discriminate between different types of rhythm.

Professor Kaplan said she was still to establish what it was about bossa nova music that appealed to the chicks, though she said it appeared the young birds preferred rhythm over melody.

While it may sound like an obscure piece of knowledge to establish, it could shed some evolutionary light on where auditory discrimination of rhythm began in vertebrates.

Rhythm is also a basic ingredient for language, so the findings presented at the CogEvo conference in Italy in July could potentially have implications for vocal learning, including in humans.

“It’s really very exciting, pioneer work,” Professor Kaplan said.

Until relatively recently, recognising and appreciating rhythm was thought to be a trait unique to humans. Not even great apes have been found to hold the knack.

“In the animal world, it’s extremely rare. Only in birds and perhaps some dolphins and whales do we see this,” Professor Kaplan said.  

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.


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