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The language of birds: 6.1 Instrumental sound production (continued)

Other European wildfowl that create wing music are the goldeneye duck Bucephala clangula and the teal Anas crecca. The explosive whirring sound created by a red grouse Lagopus lagopus or grey partridge on sudden take-off may function to startle a predator, creating a split-second but life-preserving diversion. It is known that roosting partridges arrange themselves on the ground in a tight circle and "explode" if happened upon by a predator.

Club-winged Manakin feathers (22K)
Secondary feathers of Club-winged Manakin Allocotopterus deliciosus. The three on the left, from the wing of a male, are adapted for sound production; the three on the right are the corresponding female feathers.

Listen
White-collared Manakin Manacus candei
wings sounds and calls at lek, recorded by Richard Ranft, 13 March 1986, La Selva Biological Reserve, Heredia Province, Costa Rica.

In the Americas, the commonest instrumental wing noise is the hum of the hummingbird. Not all of the 300-odd species make music in this way, but as Charles Darwin himself noted, among those that do, it is possible to distinguish the different species by their hum. Another South American family that "deliberately" creates wing noises is the Pipridae or manakins. These tiny, brightly-hued birds indulge in communal displays which for sheer extravagance of colour, movement and sound may be compared only to the birds of paradise in the Old World tropics of New Guinea. Male manakins of many of the 56 species make spectacular sounds with their specially shaped feathers. In the case of the club-winged manakin AIlacotopterus deliciosus of Colombia and Ecuador, three of the male's secondary wing feathers are a quite different shape from the three equivalent feathers of a female's wings. Our earlier examples concerned birds in ordinary flight. The manakin, however, takes flight specially to display as do woodpigeons Columba palumbus and feral rock doves C. livia (street pigeons) when they clap their wings together in nuptial expression.

Listen
Woodpigeon Columba palumbus
wingbeats, recorded by William Pedley, 26 October 1975, Clifton Spinney, Buckinghamshire, England.

The short-eared owl Asio flammeus does the same when in mid-air - it claps its wings together below the body - a simply amazing performance. The lapwing Vanellus vanellus makes a "zooming" sound with its wings during its nuptial display over the water meadows. One bird that, without flying, uses its wings to issue a territorial proclamation is the ruffed grouse of North America. This small woodland game bird perches on a specially chosen log and creates a thudding accelerando just by flapping hard. The wings are not beaten together, nor against the breast (as was formerly thought) but merely against the air.

Use made of tail feathers as sound producers may be either by flying or by perched birds. The Siberian spruce grouse Dendrogapus falcipennis, as part of an extraordinary strutting display, holds erect its tail feathers parting them and bringing them together again with an action that recalls the opening and closing of a fan. The feathers are modified in such a way as to produce a grating sound. It is the non-vocal "song" of the species and accompanies a visual nuptial posturing.

Listen
Ruffed Grouse Bonasa umbellus
'drumming', recorded by Tom Cosburn, 6 June 2003, Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada.

Similarly the strutting peacock Pavo cristatus adds an acoustic embellishment: he deliberately agitates the quills to create a rustling clatter, his train fanned to give what must surely be the most elaborate sexual display in the entire animal kingdom.

Listen
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago
bleating, recorded by A. Rex Ashby, 22 May 1987, New Forest, Hampshire, England.

Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) (25K)
Snipe Gallinago gallinago 'drumming' - i.e. creating a sound instrumentally with its two outer tail feathers.

The use of the tail feathers to create messages mechanically is best exemplified by the snipe. The bird holds out at right angles to the line of its power dive the two outermost tail feathers. These winnow or waver and create a bleating or whinnying sound.

I cannot resist retelling a story well-known in ornithological circles concerning the drumming of the snipe. There was for some time disagreement as to whether the sound now known to be mechanical in origin might have been vocal. The matter was settled just after the turn of the century at a dinner of the august British Ornithologists' Club in London when Sir Philip Manson Bahr stood up and whirled about his head a leaded cork into which had been stuck the outer tail feather of Gallinago gallinago, the common snipe. The resulting sound was plain for all to identify.

Other species of snipe, in Asia, Australia and South America, also have special shaped outer tail feathers, sometimes several pairs of them, and produce a variety of tremulous or "rushing" sounds. It has recently been discovered that the little curlew Numenius minutus of north-eastern Siberia has an aerial display not unlike that of the snipe, and creates as part of the aural effect a "jet-plane" whine.


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