Humming, whirring and clapping 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.
Mute swan wingbeats
The beating wings of a mute swan, recorded in Devon, England, by Reg Tassell.
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.
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.
White-collared manakin wing sounds
The wing sounds and calls of a white-collared manakin, recorded in Costa Rica by Richard Ranft.
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.
The wingbeats of a woodpigeon, recorded in Buckinghamshire, England, by William Pedley.
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.
Ruffed grouse wing drumming
The “drumming” wings of a ruffed grouse, recorded in Ontario, Canada by Tom Cosburn.