King Bird of Paradise, New Guinea
Photograph by Tim Laman, National GeographicConstantly trailed by his own flying saucers, a king bird of paradise clings to a vine in the New Guinea rain forest. His vivid colors and bizarre tail feathers evolved from millennia of competition for female favor.

By Dan Koeppel
Photograph by
Tim Laman

To see a manakin in action is to encounter a spectacular song and dance act in the middle of a tropical forest. About half of the 40 known species make music by moving their body parts. And in the flush of courtship, males execute maneuvers with names like the dart, the about-face, the upright, and the backward slide (which looks exactly like a Michael Jackson moonwalk).

Charles Darwin sized up the manakin in The Descent of Man. In his 1871 account of the bird, he wrote: “The diversity of the sounds … and the diversity of the means for producing such sounds, are highly remarkable. We thus gain a high idea of their importance for sexual purposes.” But the mechanics of its music making have taken more than a century to uncover.

Just a handful of ornithologists study the club-winged manakin, which lives in Colombia and Ecuador. Probably none is more in tune with the bird than Kim Bostwick. It was Bostwick—first working with her Ph.D. adviser at Yale, Richard Prum, and then since 2002 as curator of birds and mammals at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates—who broke the code of the male club-winged manakin, a standout among manakins. It is the only species that uses its feathers to generate a tick, tick, ting in the hope of making a female swoon.

Scientists knew the wings were the source of the sound but didn’t know exactly how the process worked. To crack the conundrum, Bostwick recorded the bird’s movements on a video camera operating at a thousand frames per second, more than 30 times as fast as a standard camcorder. Viewing the video a few frames at a time led to a eureka moment: The bird was knocking its wings together 107 times a second. Examining the bird’s secondary feathers in the lab, Bostwick saw on each wing a specialized feather with seven separate ridges. The fifth feather rubs against the ridged feather in a plectrum-like action—in music terminology, that’s a plucking device, like a guitar pick—to reach a frequency of an astonishing 1,500 cycles per second (seven ridges, each plucked twice = 14, multiplied by 107 = 1,498). The result is a violin-like tone, somewhere between an F sharp and a G, more than two octaves above middle C. The world has nearly 10,000 species of avifauna, but no other creates sound this way—by scraping body parts together (although crickets do something similar).

Bone density appears to be critical. In a paper that will be published later this year, Bostwick and her colleagues describe how they conducted micro-CT scans of manakin wings and discovered that the wing bones are solid. Most birds have hollow bones, which lighten the load when aloft. The manakin’s bulky bones, Bostwick says, likely have evolved in order to support the knocking action of the large feathers. But how, she wants to know, does this three-and-a-half-inch bird haul around the extra weight when it flies? And how does it manage “the incredible energy cost and physics involved in using that wing”? These are the next manakin mysteries to solve.

Pelican, Namibia
Photograph by Romulo RejonIn Walvis Bay, Namibia, a pelican would never fail in catching a fish … when thrown from a boat.

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Rescue chief Christer Olofsson holds one of many dead birds that fell onto a Swedish street Wednesday.
Photograph by Bjorn Larsson Rosvall, AP

Charles Choi
for National Geographic News
Published January 6, 2011

A mysterious rain of thousands of dead birds darkened New Year’s Eve in Arkansas, and this week similar reports streamed in from Louisiana, Sweden, and elsewhere. (See pictures of the Arkansas bird die-off.)

But the in-air bird deaths aren’t due to some apocalyptic plague or insidious experiment—they happen all the time, scientists say. The recent buzz, it seems, was mainly hatched by media hype.

At any given time there are “at least ten billion birds in North America … and there could be as much as 20 billion—and almost half die each year due to natural causes,” said ornithologist Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society in Washington, D.C.

But what causes dead birds to fall from the sky en masse? The Arkansas case points to two common culprits: loud noises and crashes.

Beginning at roughly 11:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve Arkansas wildlife officers started hearing reports of birds falling from the sky in a square-mile area of the city of Beebe. Officials estimate that up to 5,000 red-winged blackbirds, European starlings, common grackles, and brown-headed cowbirds fell before midnight.

Results from preliminary testing released Wednesday by the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, show the birds died from blunt-force trauma, supporting preliminary findings released by the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission on Monday.

"They collided with cars, trees, buildings, and other stationary objects," said ornithologist Karen Rowe of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

"Right before they began to fall, it appears that really loud booms from professional-grade fireworks—10 to 12 of them, a few seconds apart—were reported in the general vicinity of a roost of the birds, flushing them out," Rowe said.

"There were other, legal fireworks set off at the same time that might have then forced the birds to fly lower than they normally do, below treetop level, and [these] birds have very poor night vision and do not typically fly at night."

The dead birds found in Arkansas are of species that normally congregate in large groups in fall or winter. “The record I’ve heard is 23 million birds in one roost,” Audubon’s Butcher said.

"In that context, 5,000 birds dying is a fairly small amount."

(Try National Geographic’s online bird identifier.)

A Towering Problem for Birds

Birds often hit objects in flight, especially “tall buildings in cities, or cell phone towers, or wind turbines, or power lines,” Butcher said.

"The structures that seem to cause the most deaths are very tall and constantly lit," he said. "On foggy nights, birds that should probably normally be paying attention to the stars get disoriented, and circle around the structures until they collapse" and fall.

(Related: “Migrating Birds Reset ‘Compasses’ at Sunset, Study Says.”)

Collisions with power lines seem to have killed roughly 500 blackbirds and starlings in Louisiana on Tuesday. The 50 to 100 jackdaws found on a street in Sweden that same day showed no signs of disease and also apparently died from blunt-force trauma, according to the Swedish National Veterinary Institute.

Wind, snow, hail, lightning, and other challenges posed by weather can easily kill flying birds too.

For example, “last year a couple of hundred pelicans washed up by the Oregon-Washington border,” Butcher said. “A cold front had unexpectedly moved in, and they faced icing on their wings and bodies.”

(Also see “Bird Color Mysteries Explained.”)

Bird-Death Hype Detracts From True Crises?

Of course, death doesn’t just stalk birds from above. For instance, “waterfowl get botulism—and salmonella and avian pox can spread at bird feeders,” Butcher said.

No matter how it arrives, death appears to be very much a fact of life for birds. “Young birds that hatch in the spring have an approximately 75 percent chance of not reaching their first birthdays,” the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Rowe said.

"To biologists, these deaths are normal occurrences.

"I wish I could take all this energy and attention on these deaths and direct them toward true crises in wildlife biology, to things like the white-nose syndrome in bats," Rowe added.

She does, though, see a silver lining in the sky-is-falling coverage this week.

"I hope we can raise public awareness of what impact man-made structures can have on other species. How many migratory warblers do you want to kill just to get better cell phone reception?"

Southern Masked Weaver
Photograph by Jiri SlamaIt was a priceless opportunity to watch these amazing builders constructing their homes from the very beginning till the end, from the first framework made of a few grass leaves till the very last stalk had been implemented and all the salient parts smoothed to satisfy the female.

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Goshawk Chasing European BlackbirdIllustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, 1920

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