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Communicating by Wing

April 12, 2016

Some birds use their feathers to produce loud sounds as part of elaborate mating rituals.

Transcript

Alex Kirschel Rufous-Sided Broadbill

A male Rufous-Sided Broadbill uses his inner wing feathers to communicate. (Alex Kirschel)

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Sounds on the wing. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

To catch the attention of potential mates, African birds called broadbills make loud sounds while flying in tight circles.

(wing sound)

Even though the sounds closely resemble calls, the birds produce them with their wings rather than their voice, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Biology. University of California, Riverside researcher Chris Clark – formerly of Yale – documented the behavior with high-speed cameras. Further investigation in a wind tunnel revealed that the birds’ inner wing feathers act like a musical instrument.

CHRIS CLARK (UC, Riverside):

Every time the bird flapped its wing down, one pulse of sound was produced.

HIRSHON:

Clark says other bird species like hummingbirds and snipe also make sounds with their feathers. Unlike singing, the behavior likely evolved many times, starting off as the incidental by-product of vigorous mating displays. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.