Some Songbirds Can Tap Dance [New Study]

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Both scientists and average Joes have long known about (and enjoyed) the beautiful songs produced by dozens of species of male songbirds across the globe. New research, however, shows that a few songbirds can both sing and dance as they can do a little jig so fast it can’t be followed by the human eye. Even more surprisingly, in at least one species, both males and females put on a complex song and dance mating routine.

It has been known for some time that both male and female cordon-bleu birds bob up and down when they sing to their mates. New research using using high-speed video cameras has now spotted a remarkable quick-step dance that the birds perform mid-hop during their courting display.

The study by a team of ornithologists from Japan and Germany was published this week in the open access journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Because each bird’s dance became more vigorous if its mate was on the same perch, the team thinks the vibrations might be adding a tactile element to the courtship ritual.

Statements from researchers

“It’s a really rare phenomenon that songbirds produce non-vocal sounds,” explained senior author Masayo Soma of Hokkaido University in Japan. “Some species produce non-vocal sounds with their wings, but they usually don’t use their feet.”

“It wasn’t very easy to record the behaviours because these birds are very choosy, and they only perform courtship displays to the individuals they like,” Dr Soma noted in a recent interview

“It is very astonishing,” commented Manfred Gahr, co-author of the study, from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology close to Munich. “Maybe more birds are doing it, but it just has not been seen.”

More on tap dancing songbirds

Some non-songbirds also perform elaborate courtship dances that include noises from rubbing the wing or tail feathers, behaviors that have also come to light due to high-speed video footage.

The cordon-bleu’s rapid-fire tap dance is a first, however.

Examining the video clips, the team detemined the birds performed bursts of three or four very rapid steps. A single step lasted as little as six frames of high-speed video (0.02 seconds).

The researchers studied 16 blue-capped cordon-bleus (a species of waxbill native to sub-Saharan Africa). Eight males and eight females were paired up randomly for multiple two-hour sessions, and the team ended up examining over200 hours of footage.

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