For the Birds Radio Program: Manakins

Original Air Date: Feb. 8, 2001 Rerun Dates: March 24, 2004

Laura was thrilled with her first encounter with Orange-collared Manakins. (4:01)

Audio missing


When I was preparing for my trip to Costa Rica, I spent a lot of time reading, listening to CDs, and watching videos. My favorite video wasn’t put together to help with bird identification-it was an interview and profile of my favorite ornithologist, Alexander Skutch, titled A Naturalist in the Rainforest. In the course of watching and listening, one bird caught my eyes and ears and even more important, my imagination. The Orange-collared Manakin is a stout, short-tailed little bird, males colored black with a hint of yellow on the rump, a bright yellow belly, and a nape, throat and breast exactly the softly brilliant color of orange sherbet.

Manakins aren’t technically songbirds–they belong to a huge group of birds called the sub­-oscine passerines, which includes perching birds that don’t have the song production muscles of true songbirds. But the sounds they make are at least as fascinating as the most beautiful songs of other birds.

During mating season, males come together in areas called leks. On the lek, each male clears a small patch of ground of debris and displays on his own little patch, leaping back and forth between slender branches. With each leap he produces a sharp snapping sound as if breaking a dry twig. Each male’s 5 outer primary wing feathers are very narrow on the outer half, and the rest of the flight feathers of the wing have thickened, bowed shafts, and the sound these feathers produce is wondrously loud and mechanical. The suddenness and quickness of the leaps reminds me of hummingbirds, as do other aspects of the manakin’s mating habits. For as in hummers, the brilliant male manakins don’t bond with the dully colored females. Females bear all the responsibility of child-rearing, from building the nest to feeding and raising the babies.

After watching males perform their energetic and delightfully snappy display on the video, and hearing the snapping sounds on one of my Costa Rican recordings, I couldn’t wait to get to Costa Rica to see it in reality. But in reality, Orange-collared Manakins breed from March through June, not in January. We were lucky enough to hear some snapping here and there. It was too early for them to have developed any leks where we could sit and enjoy the performance, but the snapping sound alone was enough to make me smile.

I saw only one Orange-collared Manakin on the entire trip, and that was more a glimpse than a sighting–if there were any other short­ tailed birds the color of orange sherbet in Costa Rica, I couldn’t even have been 100% certain of my identification.

Since this was one species that I talked about to a lot of my friends before the trip, they thought I’d be disappointed with such a short view. But I was actually thrilled. Manakins are secretive. Despite their brilliant colors they tend to be inconspicuous outside of the breeding season. I felt honored that one little male condescended to zip past me, granting me a quick and easy check on my lifelist and an invitation to return to Costa Rica in a more appropriate season for an even more thrilling encounter.