Caught on Video: Tap Dancing Birds [Video]

birds
According to National Geographic, a new study has been released suggesting the blue-capped cordon-bleu bird does a form of tap dance to attract a mate. This is a species of the waxbill bird, which it native to sub-Saharan Africa. Scientists have already learned the male blue-and-tan African finches sing and bob their heads during courtship. The male red-cheeked cordon-bleu and the blue-breasted cordon-bleu will also sing and bob, as they are closely related to the African finches. However, a high-speed video caught a behavior unknown to scientists, the male and female blue-capped cordon-bleu perform a dance in courtship.

According to Masayo Soma, the study’s co-author from Hokkaido University in Japan, the tap dance cannot be seen with the naked eye, as their feet move too fast. As far as scientists know, this is the only species of bird that performs this type of dance during courtship.

Birds are well-known for their coloring, song, and dance to attract the attention of a possible mate. There are several species that involve the male choosing more than one mate. This makes females pickier, as the male has many opportunities to pass on his genes, but the female only has the one. This is why male birds sing their songs and do their dances, to appear more attractive than another possible mate who may also be attempting to obtain the attention of a female.

However, the blue-capped cordon-bleu, both male and female, are extremely selective when they are looking for a mate because this species of bird is monogamous. They each hold nesting material in their beak while they sing and dance for each other.

Courtship in both genders of any of the bird species is extremely rare, which created curiosity in scientists. The blue-capped cordon bleu was recorded in a lab at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany. Normal and high-speed video cameras were placed in a large cage. The study involved 16 birds, eight of each gender. A randomly selected pair was placed in the cage and the cameras were turned on for several two-hour sessions. Then there was a lot of waiting as the birds often did not court each other. This study, which was published in the Nov. 19, 2015,  Scientific Reports, cataloged over 200 hours of video footage.

Eventually, the normal speed cameras picked up the birds singing and bobbing their heads. The high-speed cameras caught the tap dancing on video. The birds would dance three steps in less time than it takes to blink and their feet made a tapping sound.

Scientists had primarily focused on the song of the birds, however, according to Anastasia Dalziell, a student at the Cornell Ornithology Lab, they are studying the visual display offered by the birds. It is becoming detail-intensive work to study the blue-capped cordon bleu. The dancing becomes more energetic if both birds are on the same branch or perch. Scientists in this study believe it could be the vibrations felt in the branch which may add an element of courtship that can be felt by the birds. Although they are not sure what the tapping of the feet adds to the courtship ritual there are a few theories, such as rhythmic accompaniment to the song the bird sings, a visual display that compliments the head bobbing, or an act of romance that affects several senses.

Soma reported that songbirds rarely make non-vocal sounds and the birds that use an alternative to singing, generally do so with their wings. High-speed videos have shown the non-vocal birds making noises, performing tricks, and dancing with their wings, as well as tail feathers.

Manfred Gahr, co-author of this study, believes there could be more birds that use their feet in courtship. The blue-capped cordon-bleu is just the first species science has seen perform this type of dance. According to Gahr, the Cornell Ornithology Lab was focusing on the song of the birds, however, Soma wanted to look into the dance of the birds and it was her lab in Japan that opted to use the high-speed cameras.

Soma told the BBC, there are so many hours of video footage because of the selective behavior of the blue-capped cordon-bleu. The birds would only court those they were interested in as a mate. Eventually, the right couple was caught in courtship, tap dancing. Almost all the males and four of the females were recorded, at 300 frames per second, singing and bobbing.

The video revealed bursts of three to four swift steps per dance, which lasted 0.02 seconds at a time. Gahr explained that while performing the fancy quick-step, the birds also hold a piece of nesting material in their beak, tilt their heads up, bob up and down, and sing. During this array of movement, the bird also watches their love interest. Gahr and his team would like to further research the bird’s courtship routine to discover if there is a method for this dance.

A behavioral ecologist from the University of Hull in the U.K., Will Allen, would like to observe the tap dancing blue-capped cordon-bleu in the wild. Although he believes this study was a great start there is still more to learn, for example, is the receiver partial to this dance and is it sensitive to the display? It may be possible from what has been observed in the birds studied in captivity, but an experimental design needs to be put together so they can be watched in their natural habitat, according to Allen. The study would be difficult to conduct in the wild as the tap dancing can only be seen using high-speed video.

This complete study can be found in the Nov. 19, 2015, Scientific Reports. Below is a segment of the actual video footage recorded for this study.

By Jeanette Smith
Edited by Shepherd Mutsvara

Sources:

National Geographic: Tap-Dancing Birds Revealed for First Time in New Video
BBC: Bird’s Lightning ‘Tap Dance’ Caught On Camera
Scientific Reports: Tap dancing birds: the multimodal mutual courtship display of males and females in a socially monogamous songbird
Top Image Courtesy of PINKE’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Featured Image Courtesy of acornjfl’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

Your Thoughts?