Snowball the dancing cockatoo by Sy Montgomery | Book Review


SUMMARY: A witty and engaging children's book that tells the true story of an internationally famous cockatoo who changed the way scientists think about dancing.

"If life doesn't give you fruit, you can always eat nuts. And if you don't like nuts, at least you can throw them on the floor, which is highly entertaining." ~Snowball the dancing cockatoo (p. 14).

A couple years ago, Snowball the dancing cockatoo burst upon the scene after one of his YouTube videos went viral, receiving over 200,000 views in one week. Almost immediately, he was invited onto a number of television programmes to strut his stuff. Shortly thereafter, he starred in television ads, and he inspired the World's First Bird Dance-Off Contest before branching out by teaching children how to dance and by doing charity work. A book deal was even in the works!

In his biography, Snowball The Dancing Cockatoo, writer Sy Montgomery translates Snowball's comments into English for all to enjoy [Bauhan Publishing, 2013; Amazon UK; Amazon US; iTunes/iOS].

Written with humour and illustrated by artist Judith Oksner's beautifully whimsical watercolour-and-ink paintings, this story is told from Snowball's point of view. It begins when Snowball, a medium sulfur-crested cockatoo, Cacatua galerita eleonora, ended up becoming too difficult to handle after his former owner went to college. He was a love-sick teen-aged parrot who felt his human had abandoned him. Her parents brought Snowball (along with his favourite belongings) to Bird Lovers Only, a shelter for parrots, hoping they could find him a suitable new home.

But after three previous homes, Snowball was having none of this nonsense. Brokenhearted, he bit anyone and everyone who showed him any interest. He wanted to remain permanently at Bird Lovers Only.

"I had to stick with my plan. I had to make sure nobody else adopted me", says Snowball after one particularly bloody introduction to a woman whose ear he had bitten.

"I tried to tell myself that really, I had done her a favor. Many people, I've noticed, get pierced ears. I did one of hers for free."

But when his caregivers at Bird Lovers Only played his favourite CD, the Backstreet Boys' song "Everybody", Snowball's passion -- dancing to his favourite music -- became obvious. His caregivers were so impressed that they captured a video of his performance and shared it on YouTube. It was this video that made the lovelorn parrot into an international superstar.

"[F]olks around here call me a 'rockatoo'", remarks Snowball in the book.

"That's because when I dance, I really rock out!"

Guest appearances on numerous television programmes and advertising contracts quickly followed. Soon, everyone seemed to know about Snowball. As Snowball notes, he logged more frequent flier miles than an albatross.

But Snowball became more than just an internet and television phenomenon; his dancing caught the eyes of two scientists, Aniruddh Patel and John Iversen at The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. Dr Patel, a musician and neuroscientist, studies the music of language and the language of music, and Dr Iversen studies how sound is used to modify behaviour -- basically, dancing in time to a rhythm.

Like everyone else, they were impressed by Snowball's video, but they had a more academic interest: they wanted to know if Snowball was dancing on his own, or was he responding to physical cues from his humans?

"Ha! Little did he know, that it's ME who gives the cues around here", asserts Snowball in the book.

"After all, I'm always the lead dancer."

But the scientists wanted proof. So they designed an experiment to test the independence of Snowball's dancing. Over the course of many weeks, Snowball was filmed whilst dancing to eleven different tempos of his favourite music. After slowing the videos down to sixty frames per second so they could see movements that were too quick to be noticed by the human eye, they concluded that Snowball really was dancing to the beat -- an ability that previously was thought to be uniquely human. Publication of this research sealed Snowball's fame:

They concluded that, yes, I really was dancing to the beat. Yes, I really could change my dance to match the music. And it rocked the world of science. My feat was headline news from New York to LA, from Tokyo to Sydney, Australia. A PARROT can sync to music! Humans aren't the only ones who can dance!" (p. 52)

In their papers, Drs Patel and Iversen proposed that dancing might be related to the ability to speak -- an aptitude that humans and parrots (and some songbirds) share (doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04581.x & doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.03.038; both papers are open access).

This book captures Snowball's character and translates it with wit and warmth to the written page. Unfortunately, there are a number of scientific errors in this book that detract from its accuracy. For example, the author incorrectly states that there are "more than 40 species of cockatoos" (p. 21); in fact, 21 species of cockatoos have been formally described by scientists.

In a discussion about vision, the author mentions that humans see fewer colours than birds (true) but then goes on to state that "[h]umans have two kinds of receptors for colour; we birds have at least three" (p. 25). In fact, this not true: humans have three colour receptors (red-orange, green-yellow and blue-violet) whilst bird species have at least four.

Another error is a long-standing pet peeve. The author variously states that the lifespan of parrots is "seventy years or more" (p. 8) or "up to 120 years" (p. 10) -- claims that are often repeated by parrot owners despite not being verified. In fact, although parrot longevity is legendary, it is species-dependent, and rarely exceeds 60 years for some of the larger parrot species such as cockatoos and macaws.

This charming 64-page paperback is printed on high-quality glossy paper and includes 64 watercolour-and-ink paintings embedded in its pages. Despite its errors, this book will be enjoyed by both children and by those who are considerably older than the target audience between the ages of 8 and 13.

Here's a video report (courtesy of Bird Lovers Only) about Snowball, his dancing and why this talent makes him so special:


[Video link]

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Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and writer. She is author of 15 books, and also writes a popular nature column for the Boston Globe. Her children's book, Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea was the recipient of the 2007 Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children and was selected as an Honor book for the ALA Sibert Award for distinguished informational books published in English. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Ms Montgomery resides in Hancock, New Hampshire with her husband.

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NOTE: this piece was slightly edited from the original, written by GrrlScientist and published on her science blog hosted by the Guardian.

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Grrlscientist can also be found on on her eponymous Guardian blog, and she also lurks on social media; facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest and of course, on twitter: @GrrlScientist

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