Toad in the Hole

July 29, 2005

Friday Science Blogging: Manakins stridulate!

This bit of Nature news captures a nice piece of tech-facilitated science. Darwin (see footnote in the linked article) noticed that manakins make weird noises, and a really really fast camera has shown part of how they do it: not with voice, but with their feathers. It's a lot like the way crickets sing, but apparently unique among vertebrates.

Unique insofar as it's their only noisemaking method; I know that other birds use their feathers to make noise. I've watched the North American great-tailed grackle, the first time I saw it in Texas, making a racket that sounded like eating an operating copier. (I was sure I'd found The Works, that Texas was a big machine like Disneyland and Joe and I had stumbled onto the back door of the engine room.) The bird was using both his vocal apparatus and his feathers, rattling the latter like a flipbook or a deck of cards being thumbed while he creaked and grawked and screamed. I await the arrival of The Dread Texas Steam Grackle in my neighborhood with a certain trepidation.

Manakins themselves have some interesting habits anyway. Some species are pole dancers; males strip the leaved from a slender sapling or tall stem and use it to spin and climb while they display; some species dance in troupes, a lek with a "display partnership" of unrelated male birds. Some do their dance, including a "moonwalk" so fast it took another of those highspeed cameras to catch it, on horizontal twigs. Some seem to vary in color depending on their preferred dancehall, showing white for contrast in dark deep-jungle places.

The San Diego Zoo has an aviary with a cock-o'-the-rock show around 3PM daily in season -- not tame birds; just that predictable. I wonder what it would take to add some of these sophisticated babies to the cast.

Late addition:

See it live and in slow motion.

Posted at July 29, 2005 06:02 PM


Hi Ron! Sorry to put this in the comments, but I didn’t see an email link on site. I just realized that your “Joe” is Joe Eaton by following the link to his article about Great-tailed Grackles. Please say hello for me. He won’t know OGeorge, but Carl Buell asks when we’re going to work together again. I so enjoyed the project we did for “Bay Nature”.

Even in the Nature News article it didn’t say much about Manakins, but they’re a New World Passerine family allied to Cotingas and Tyrant Flycatchers, and an absolute ball to paint. There are species with color combinations you just couldn’t make up; wonderful, incredibly animated, little bits of life.

Posted by: OGeorge at July 29, 2005 08:24 PM

Hey, Carl, nice to see you here! I forwarded your comment to Joe. I think he'd love to work with you again; he really likes your take on things.

We were up at Mono Lake last October and looking at the natural history displays in that kiosk on the south shore, new since we'd been there last. "Hey! That's CARL!" Nice paintings, too.

It was great, like running into an old friend in a different context.

Posted by: Ron at July 30, 2005 04:48 AM