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XY2447_Birds&People_UK_SP_346-347

3/25/13

11:22 AM

Black Yellow Magenta Cyan

MANAKIN FAMILY Pipridae

The electronic buzzing noise made by the male Clubwinged Manakin is typical of the many quirky manakin displays that have captivated people for centuries.

Manakin family Pipridae Flame-crested, Scarlet-horned, Red-capped, Goldenheaded, White-bearded, Blue-rumped – even the English nomenclature for this intriguing family of 44 birds gives a broad clue to their striking appearance and character. Manakins are exclusively Latin American birds – just three species reach as far north as south Mexico – and most of them are inhabitants of humid South American rainforest. The males’ plumages are highly distinctive for their bright colours, but these are invariably arranged in discrete and often relatively small patches. The strongest hue is frequently confined to the tops of their crowns. The females, by contrast, are almost all dull green. Aside from this strong sexual dimorphism, a second common denominator is the manakins’ smallness, a quality that seems emphasised by their rotund shapes, stubby bills and short legs. The biggest species are just 14 cm (5.5 in) and some, like the Bluerumped Manakin Lepidothrix isidorei (8 cm: 3 in), are among the tiniest birds in Amazonia. The family name is itself a reference to the birds’ dimensions and is said to derive from an old Dutch word manneken (famously used for the seventeenth-century bronze sculpture called Manneken Pis – literally ‘the little man peeing’ – in Brussels).1 This gave us the English word ‘manikin’, meaning a ‘dwarf ’ or ‘small man’, but today it is more commonly spelled ‘mannequin’ and has come to be associated with a shop’s dummy or model. However, a further connotation to the initial Dutch word was ‘little bird’ or ‘pretty little thing’ and manneken was apparently used until the eighteenth century in reference to other European birds.2 Incidentally, the South American manakins should not be confused with African and Asian mannakins. The latter is

just an alternative spelling of the same word, but the birds themselves are small finch-like species in the Waxbill and Munia family (see page 492). The Neotropical manakins may be small, but their behaviour has long been a cause of deep human interest. The Brazilian naturalist Helmut Sick thought the gloriously beautiful Blue Manakin Chiroxiphia caudata of southern Amazonia among the best-known species in his country and described how even colonists in the sixteenth century were captivated by its behaviour.3 This interest centres on the bird’s breeding rituals. Those bright colours are deployed by the males as part of their courtship behaviour, in which an arena or space is specially selected and even cleared of obstructive vegetation, and known today as a ‘lek’ (see also Grouse Display and Human Dance, page 50). This is occupied by competing cocks as they display to catch the attention of females. Their performances can be as captivating as they are amusing. The Western Striped Manakin Machaeropterus striolatus, for example, which is found across north-western Amazonia and the Orinoco basin, swings upside down on his perch or rotates rapidly right round it, while making a buzzing insect-like noise.4 In the Blue Manakin the display can involve several males performing at one time. If there are just two they rotate in a double act of constant Catherine-wheel-like motion, each bird jumping up, fluttering back and behind his male dance partner. However, if there are more than two – sometimes as many as six take part – then they line up in sequence on a branch, bodies quivering, feet tapping and their fiery-red caps raised. Each male moves along the line closer to the onlooking female, and 347


XY2447_Birds&People_UK_SP_348-349

3/25/13

11:22 AM

Black Yellow Magenta

COTINGA FAMILY Cotingidae

when he is immediately adjacent, he leaps up and flutters at her, purring rhythmically, then leapfrogs back over his male competitors to take a place at the rear of the queue.5 South American nomenclature for these birds makes several references to the manakins’ choreography. In Brazil the Blue Manakin is called Dançador, ‘dancer’, while an old name was said to be ‘the Fandango bird’, after its elaborate footwork.6 The three members of the family that occur in Argentina, including Blue Manakin, are also known as Bailarín, ‘dancer’. Perhaps the weirdest of all the dance moves deployed belongs to the Red-capped Manakin Pipra mentalis of northern South and Central America. A witness in the 1940s described its cavorting like ‘a ballet dancer on tip-toe’.7 This barely does justice to both the strangeness and inherent humour of the display. Through a super-fast sequence of tiny, almost trembling and (to the human eye) invisible foot movements, the bird seems to glide back and forth along a horizontal branch as if the motion were not of its volition or doing. More recently these dazzling manoeuvres have been compared to the most celebrated of all modern dance steps, the ‘moonwalk’ performed by the late Michael Jackson. As if this link were not strong enough, the Red-capped Manakin possesses saffron-coloured thighs – ‘yellow pantaloons’ according to one author – that have a touch of the Jacksonesque fashion sense.8 The bird’s display has been

widely featured on television and on YouTube, where the link with Jackson’s own electrifying performance has been further cemented by the footage of the bird’s display being set to the scintillating rhinestone sound of Jackson’s 1983 hit ‘Billie Jean’. The bird now has a reflected fame as the ‘Moonwalking Bird’ or the ‘Bird Michael Jackson’. There is one last feature to manakin displays that reinforces their overall weirdness, because many of the sounds incorporated are actually instrumental rather than vocal. The wings have specially thickened shafts in the secondaries, while the primaries are curved or oddly shaped. In combination these enable manakins to produce strange rattles, thrums, snaps, pops or whip-cracking noises. The Club-winged Manakin Machaeropterus deliciosus, so named for its apparently misshapen flight feathers, can produce ‘an unusual insectlike or “electronic” buzz preceded by two dry tipping sounds’.9 Another of the family, the White-bearded Manakin Manacus manacus, has a Brazilian name (Rendeira) that makes reference to these mechanical notes. Rendeira means ‘lacemaker’ and draws on the strange clicking noise that the male makes during his dance display. This sound was said to resemble the rattling of a bobbin during lacemaking.10 More modern interpretations note the ‘firecrackerlike snaps’ and the sound’s distinct similarity to the rude gesture known as a raspberry or a ‘bronx cheer’. 11

Cotinga family Cotingidae These 98 species comprise one of the great New World bird families. They are famous for their beauty, including two species that are entirely deep blue and purple (Blue Cotinga Cotinga nattererii and Spangled Cotinga Cotinga cayana) as well as two of the very few pure-white land birds on Earth (White Bellbird Procnias albus and Bare-throated Bellbird Procnias nudicollis). Yet cotingas are perhaps best known for being such an oddly mixed assemblage. Ornithologists frequently allude to the quality: ‘a taxonomic potpourri’; ‘impossible to characterize concisely’; ‘an amazing avian family of controversial limits’.1 Three broadly unifying characteristics are their frugivorous diet, their preference for arboreal habitats and their exclusively American distribution. In fact, they are predominantly South American. Just 11 family members occur in Mexico and only a single representative, the Rose-throated Becard Platypsaris aglaiae (‘becard’ roughly means ‘big-beak’), creeps across the border into southern USA, where it has a small breeding presence in Arizona.2 The family’s variety is greatest in Amazonia and exemplified by the size differences between the largest and smallest. The Buff-throated Purpletuft Idopleura pipra (9.5 cm: 3.7 in) of eastern Brazil is less than one-fifth the length of the huge and oddly adorned Amazonian Umbrellabird Cephalopterus ornatus. The male of this last species measures as much as 51 cm (20 in) and is one of the biggest passerines on the continent. Another oddly unifying aspect to cotingas is the frequency with which their beauty is enhanced – as in the case of the umbrellabirds – 348

by fancy ‘extras’: wattles, frills, crests or patches of naked skin. The Bare-necked Fruitcrow Gymnoderus foetidus of the Amazonian rainforest has an almost lizard-like lappet of cobalt flesh round the throat. The Three-wattled Bellbird Procnias tricarunculatus of Central America has what look like three black worms dribbling from its bill, and the Long-wattled Umbrellabird Cephalopterus penduliger of the northern Andes possesses two such features. Hanging over its face and beak, like a rakishly angled cap, is a forward-leaning crest, and at the throat droops a scarflike extension almost like a feather boa, that can ‘grow’ during display until it is sometimes as long as the bird itself (46 cm: 18 in). The ultimate cotingas for extravagance of colour and body shape, as well as for their captivating strangeness of display, are the jay-sized pair Guianan Cock-of-therock Rupicola rupicola and Andean Cock-of-therock Rupicola peruvianus (the national bird of Peru). While the females are essentially a shade of brown with darker flight feathers, the males have silk-sheened black tails and wings with bodies of either deep, almost fluorescent, tangerine (Guianan Cock-of-the-rock and also the eastern race of the Andean Cock-of-the-rock, aequatorialis) or brilliant blood red (Andean Cock-of-the-rock). One eyewitness of the latter species in display conveys this sumptuous colour: From the viewing platform on the valley side, the birds were surprisingly difficult to see. The vegetation was dense, and although the males were actively chasing


Manikins