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When dancing is a pleasure for birds as well

February 22, 2019

Steeped as we are in our love for dance, we fail to recognise sometimes that we are not alone in the dancing world. Many more species in nature dance as impressively if not more, than man. It is while watching the migratory birds visiting Delhi that urged me to talk of dance in the avian world.

Actually, very few animals really dance - that is to say that they can consistently move to music. I will talk about this in a subsequent column, but for the moment I must point out that the most attractive dancing is by birds.

There is a well-documented case, also a case that was the first to be scientifically explored, of a cockatoo called Snowball. This species come from Australia and New Guinea, where sadly they are regarded as pests. Snowball, with a distinctive, almost punky sulphur crest, had a rare talent. Snowball could dance, nodding and stamping to a variety of tunes, but his especial favourite was the Backstreet Boys tune, "Everybody". Snowball used his skills to appear on TV, initiate neuroscience research and raise funds for disadvantaged children. He was featured on an episode of 'Animals at Work', which described Snowball as a professional dancer. He is still going strong aged almost 23, and continues regularly to entertain special communities like the aged, youth and patients admitted to nursing homes. He has performed in international TV commercials too.

The scientific experiments carried out by two researchers, Drs. Patel and Iversen, at the Neurosciences Institute of La Jolla, California, show without a doubt, that Snowball was an unusually gifted bird, capable of spontaneously dancing to music created by humans, and that he was capable, in a limited sort of but undeniable way, of adjusting his movements to match the tempo of the music, a behaviour previously thought only to occur in humans. At 23, Snowball is still going strong, with many fans who have made him an internet sensation.

What we have always known is that many birds have very impressive courtship dances. Incidentally, the dance that Cockatoos like Snowball do during courtship is different being simpler, more of strutting in the direction of the female with a stiffened crest, while articulating soft guttural sounds. So Snowball's public dance routine is very different, far more complex and mostly in accordance and to the beat of the external source of music.

The birds have several courtship rituals aimed at attracting a receptive mate, of which singing, displaying heightened plumage, showcasing nest building skills, and dancing are but some. However, I must hasten to add that there are several other purposes behind the courtship behaviour of different bird species, including reduction of territorial aggression, and as a means of letting two birds relax so that together they could form a pair bond.

Dancing also helps trigger a bird's reproductive cycle. Some months ago I met George Archibald, a legend among bird watchers and bird scientists, who in 1973 co-founded the International Crane Foundation. So committed was he to revive those of the 15 species of cranes that had dropped drastically in numbers. One such species was the Whooping Crane. In 1976 he managed to get one - a female, but while waiting for a match he had to ensure that the reproductive system would remain alive. For seven years, he lived with the bird, ensuring through dancing with the bird, (for a picture see here) making sure that it was prepped up for mating whenever they found a partner for her. Archibald laughingly referred to his dancing with the Crane called Tex, as Texercise!


Bow back

Start of choreography

Advanced choreography

Solo steps

Sawal jawab
Courtship dance of the Whooping Cranes
Photos: Dr.Arshiya Sethi

My interest in this piece is to share with you some of the amazing courtship dances that birds do, accompanied by bird calls and sounds.

Cranes are the largest birds and they have elaborate courtship dances. The dances by which cranes attract mates are absolutely stunning. In the fields of Uttar Pradesh one can often see the Sarus Cranes dance. The Sarus Crane is the tallest of the flying birds in the world. This is the bird that with its death in the hands of a hunter, evoked Karunya Rasa in Valmiki, resulting in the creation of shloka from the bhava of Shoka, and the subsequent penning of the Ramayana.

The Sandhill Cranes dance with graceful athletic leaps. Although dancing is most common in the breeding season, these cranes can dance through the year, including in their choreography wing flapping, bowing and jumping. Sandhill cranes mate for life, but even after they have found a partner, they still take a turn around the dance floor together to keep their moves on point.

The Black Necked Crane, that is so highly respected by the Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh, as a reflection of the Dalai Lama, winters in Bhutan, Ladakh and Arunachal. As these elegant cranes are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Bhutanese greet their annual arrival rather ceremoniously, with dances inspired by them. Since 1998, local conservationists have hosted a day-long Black Necked Crane Festival in the courtyard of the Gangtey Monastery. The monks perform masked dances, and the school kids, dressed in black-and-white costumes, dance like cranes, while locals sell crane-themed handicrafts. Unfortunately, the numbers of the cranes continue to dwindle, but it is clear that the community loves their cranes.

Another community that shares the same degree of love for the birds that visit them in the migratory season are the villagers of Khichan in Rajasthan. The affection and commitment for the Demoiselle cranes that come to the village every year, is the stuff that the 'kurja' folk songs of the region sing about. The Demoiselle cranes are called Kurja in the local language. These are the same birds that come in the start of the Ramayan story, when a hunter kills one of a pair. The local names of the bird, kurja and Koonj are derived from the Sanskrit word kraunch, from which is derived the word - Crane.

Peacocks, Bengal Floricans and Great Indian Bustards also dance, especially when it rains. When the peacock dances, its iridescent tail feathers fan out. The tail feathers of the peacock make up as much as 60 percent of the bird's total body length! This is the same tail, about which Amitendra Nath Tagore, grandson of Abanindranath Tagore and one the country's most qualified sinologist, wrote that "The sparrow feels sorry for the peacock at the burden of its tail," and Toni Morrison wrote, in the Song of Solomon, "Too much tail. All that jewellery weighs it down!" But this very tail looks resplendent when the peacock dances. The dance seems to be the best way to show off the iridescent feathers of the male's body. Actually a female selects a male based on the size, shape and color of his tail feathers, which means males have to look their very best if they hope to get a partner. Hence it is the female's pickiness that has driven the evolution of the extravagant plumage of the peacock.

The Great Indian Bustard and the Bengal Florican, does not fan out as much as the peacock, but additionally it does an amazing display of graceful jumps to attract a partner. The dance of the Great Indian Bustard, which was a runner up in the selection of the National Bird of India, once seen quite often in the scrublands and grasslands of the desert states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, has recently seen its numbers fall so critically, that they are on the verge of extinction today with numbers down to 150. So that is a dance that our children may not be able to see!

Grebes, a kind of water bird, perform a bird version of ballet dance movements before mating. The dance commences with the two birds mimicking each other's movements, and then they rise out of the water and run along its surface, flapping their short wings and tripping along in perfect unison. All of a sudden they dive under the water and come up with nodes of water plants from the bottom. This appears to be an offering to each other, and a moment of acceptance of each other as mates, since this is the material they will use to make a nest. The secret of success in the mating process through the dance is the birds' ability to run across the water together. It is believed that they make the cut only if potential partners can keep stride.

Another water bird, the Albatross, which finds reference in 'The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner' by Lord Alfred Tennyson, starts out their mating dance with mutual grooming, each tenderly preening the other bird's feathers. Then they launch into a mating dance in which they tap their beaks, which rattle together like castanets. Actually, each species of albatross has a unique dance, but the black-footed albatross has one of the most interesting choreographies, which includes head bobbing, bill clapping, head shaking, calling, wing lifting, and sky pointing among other coordinated moves. Its beauty and complexity has to be seen to be believed. An albatross pair knows when it has found its mate, and they mate for life, only when they find the perfect dance partner. Partners, and sometimes even groups of three or four, will dance and see if they're compatible. It sometimes takes years of an albatross returning to the breeding ground and practicing dance moves before finally finding a permanent partner.

While most birds do the mating dance in pairs, when choosing a mate, flamingos dance in a big group. They stretch their necks and flip their heads back and forth while taking tiny, mincing steps. It is only after dancing as an ensemble that they break off in pairs to breed. These birds pair only for a season but remain sexually active for almost twenty years, accounting for the large numbers of flamingos that need to dance together. According to the researchers from Centre de Recherche de la Tour du Valat, a research centre for the conservation of Mediterranean wetlands, the flamingos have almost 136 moves and they increase in complexity, since only then do they have the hope of finding a mate.

I write this piece since I know dancers look for inspiration in nature. Maybe they could look towards the birds!

Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice as well as Indian dance in the diaspora.

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