Friday, June 22, 2012

Sings with wings

These are the special feathers that allow the club-winged manakin (Machaeropterus deliciosus) to play its wing like a violin! Happily, this little bird, which resides in the cloud forest of the Andes in South America, is not threatened with extinction and is free to play its song (listen here). The male does that by rubbing a specialized feather with a stiff tip bent at a 45° angle (the 4th feather in the image above) against another feather that has 7 separate ridges (3rd feather above) to produce a mating call. As a graduate student at Yale University in 1997, Kim Bostwick theorized that the birds knock their wings above their backs to create sound, but it is only recently - with a portable high-speed camera that she and her colleagues were able to confirm that club-winged manakins knock their wings together more than 100 times per second in order to sing as a courtship display. Now curator of birds and mammals at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, Bostwick describes:
"I recorded males making this sound in the Ecuadorian Andes using a digital high-speed video camera. By examining the video at slower speeds, I could see that the males were knocking a pair of modified wing feathers together over their back at a very high rate - more than 100 cycles per second - twice as fast as an average hummingbird flaps its wings."
Their probability of procreating is directly proportional to the accomplishment of this "on-board violin" (more here, including a video).
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