Humming, whirring and clapping wings

Some birds deliberately create sounds with their wings.

Wildfowl wing music

To Europeans, the best known user of wings as sound-producers is the mute swan. In flight this bird produces a humming throb not easy to describe, but highly distinctive and carrying for a considerable distance. It functions as a contact note. The existence of this instrument explains why the bird is called mute. Unlike the other two European swans, which are highly vocal, the mute swan uses its syrinx for very little because it has evolved a mechanical means of creating its contact note. As would be expected, the Bewick's and whooper swans make no functional noise with their wings. Only the mute swan shows the specially shaped primary feathers that create the sound as air passes over them.

Other European wildfowl that create wing music are the goldeneye duck and the teal. The explosive whirring sound created by a red grouse 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.

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 noted, among those that do, it is possible to distinguish the different species by their hum.

Clapping manakins

Another family that “deliberately” creates wing noises is the South American 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 make spectacular sounds with their specially shaped feathers. In the case of the club-winged manakin 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 and feral rock doves (street pigeons) when they clap their wings together in nuptial expression. The short-eared owl does the same when in mid-air - it claps its wings together below the body - a simply amazing performance. 

Zooms and thuds

The lapwing 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.

  • Jeffery Boswall
  • Jeffery Boswall (1931-2012) was a natural history broadcaster, film-maker and producer. He is best known for his radio and television work with the BBC Natural History Unit. His notable titles include Animal Magic, The Private Life of the Kingfisher, and Wildlife Safari to Ethiopia. Jeffery co-founded the National Sound Archive's wildlife section with Patrick Sellar in 1969.