Secret of Darwin's 'violin-playing bird' revealed

The club-winged manakin, which was described by Darwin in his book on sexual selection called The Descent of Man, uses its wings to produce a baleful humming sound to attract a mate. It is the first time that ornithologists have filmed the "wing song" of the small South American bird as it beats its wings 100 times a second - twice as fast as the wing-beat of a hummingbird.

High-speed video recordings taken with a digital camera and played back in slow motion have revealed how males of the club-winged manakin, Machaeropterus deliciosus, lean forward to raise their wings behind their backs before flipping them to make the humming tune.

The sound it produces, which is described as "tick-tick-ting", is as loud as ordinary birdsong and can be heard tens of yards away. The "tick" notes are sharp, tonal clicks, whereas the "ting" is a sustained, violin-like note which lasts a third of a second.

Kimberly Bostwick of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and Richard Prum of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, describe how the manakin makes its courtship sound in the journal Science. They believe that the rapid movements of the wings, combined with the unusual structure of some of the bird's wing feathers, sets up a resonating note within the hollow shafts of the feathers.

Dr Bostwick said that the male had evolved the elaborate sound-producing mechanism because of the intense sexual competition between males of the species to attract females - the same sort to sexual selection that resulted in the peacock's tail.

"Essentially an instrument has evolved in this species, in this case a refined instrument. In general, if an adaptation is really weird and out there, it is produced by sexual selection," she said.

When the scientists studied the wings of the birds they found that each wing had one feather with a pick, or small blade, and an adjacent feather with ridges and enlarged, hollow shafts.

Each wing created its own violin-like hum as the pick feather rubbed against the adjacent ridged feather during the high-speed flapping of the wings.

"We rule out a lot of hypotheses, but when I realised that the wing feathers were twisted in a way that forced them to rub, I knew we had something," Dr Bostwick said.

Club-winged manakins breed in "leks", an arrangement where competing males display their courtship signals to females who then decide which partner to choose. This produces intense competition between males to attract a mate, with one male often mating with most females.

There are 40 kinds of manakins but not all of them use sound as the primary mating signal. One species has developed a sophisticated dance which involves gliding up to a female without appearing to move his feet.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk