Video: African bird ‘sings’ by fluttering its wings

The “brrreeet” you hear in the video above is not coming from this broadbill’s beak, but rather from its wings. Charles Darwin marveled at “instrumental music” of birds—from the rattled quills of peacocks to the wing-drumming of grouse and the wing “booming” of night-jars. But those percussive noises are no match for the definitive tones generated by the three Smithornis broadbills (S. rufolateralis, S. capensis, and S. sharpei) that live in remote forests in sub-Saharan Africa. One bird acoustics specialist was so intrigued in 1986 by a recording of this “song,” that he vowed to hear it for himself. More than 2 years ago, he and his colleagues tracked two of these species down in the wild. Synchronized high-speed video and acoustic recordings revealed the downstroke of the wings produces the tones as the bird flies in a meter-wide oval from its perch and back again. At first the researchers thought the outermost flight feathers flutter to make the sounds, but studies of a wing and of the feathers themselves in a wind tunnel showed that the inner flight feathers are “singing” the most, the team reports today in the Journal of Experimental Biology. The tones may scale with the species’ body and feather size, with the bigger ones producing deeper tones, the researchers suggest. The wing tones seemed to have replaced vocal singing, they note, and are likely unique to this group of birds. Audible 100 meters away in dense forest, they represent yet another innovation for communicating with one’s peers.

(Video credit: Alex Kirschel/Christopher J. Clark)