The jungle is full of songbirds, but none quite like the club-winged manakin, a small passerine bird found in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador. While most birds are vocalists, the club-winged manakin prefers to play lead fiddle ... with its wings.
Listening to the club-winged manakin play a tune is one of nature's unique spectacles. It's the only known bird species to play music by rubbing its wings together. Until now, though, scientists knew little about how the birds' instruments worked, according to BBC Nature.
Kim Bostwick, curator of birds and mammals at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, led the research team that finally got to the bottom of it. By using CT scans to analyze the birds' wing bones, and by capturing the birds playing their songs with high-speed cameras, the magic of the birds' music was revealed.
The first surprise was the density of the manakins' bones. Most birds have hollow wing bones, which keeps them light enough for flight. But club-winged manakins have "bulky and solid" wing bones.
"Birds tend not to want to carry around a lot of extra weight," said Bostwick. "[So the fact] that the club-winged manakin is carrying around such enlarged, solid and densely mineralized bones, must mean they have some great contribution to sound production."
An analogy to a violin is particularly apt here. Imagine how difficult a violin would be to play if the neck and body of the instrument was as thin and flimsy as the strings. Dense, solid bones therefore provide a rigid shaft, which allows the music to better reverberate from the birds' vibrating feathers.
The true majesty and technical ability of the birds' musical feat is best understood by observing them under a high-speed camera. Footage captured by Bostwick shows that manakins knock their wings together more than 100 times per second to sing. That's even faster than a hummingbird beats its wings.
Each time the wings meet, the manakins use a specialized feather which is bent at a stiff 45-degree angle to rub against another feather that has seven separate ridges, which is what they use to compose their unique mating calls.
Only males of the species have these specialized structures, and that typically signifies that a trait evolved via sexual selection, much like a peacock's flamboyant tail. Bostwick says the next step in understanding this unique bird's sound is to find out how exactly it evolved.
Check out the following video of the club-winged manakin in action to hear for yourself how it makes its beautiful musical aria.