For the Birds Radio Program: Manakin and Antbird
When Laura was in Costa Rica, she witnessed a comical scene between a manakin, focused entirely on keeping everything out of his little display area, and an antbird, entirely focused on walking across that very display area.
When I was planning my trip to Costa Rica, one of the things I most wanted to see was a male manakin doing his breeding display. Mana.kins are comical-looking birds–wider and flatter than chickadees, with a bull-neck and only a tiny stump of a tail. Despite the obvious differences in shape, the White-collared Mana.kin does bring a chickadee to mind, perhaps in the sparkling gleam in his eye, perhaps in his black cap. His close relative, the Orange-collared Manakin, is too vivid to look like a chickadee, a huge area of its body the color of orange sherbet.
And manakins are nothing like chickadees in behavior. Instead of living in pleasant upper-Midwestern communities, pairing off pretty much for life the way chickadees do, male manakins come together on display grounds called leks. Each one selects a little piece of real estate on the lek which he clears of all debris. Then he spends an enormous amount of his time keeping other male manakins and even other species of birds off his piece of land while trying to attract a female. He accomplishes both goals via a wonderful snapping display-he leaps every which way like a hyperactive frog, and with each leap makes a snapping sound with his wings. If he succeeds in attracting a female, she spends a little time watching him hopping about, and then mates with him, having no more interest in a long-term relationship than he does. After they’ve mated, she retreats elsewhere to nest and raise babies alone.
Last time I was in Costa Rica, in January of last year, there were a few manakins displaying, but we were there too early in the breeding season to see many. I was filled with hope that this time around I’d hit the Costa Rican manakin display period at its peak, but the first two weeks of April are apparently at the tail-end of the nesting period, and the first week of the trip I saw only a handful and heard only one from a distance.
Finally, at our last stop of the trip, a lovely rainforest resort in the Caribbean lowlands alongside the Sarapiqui River, I found a single manakin displaying along a well-used path between the restaurant and the buildings where we were staying. One afternoon when I was there alone, the male came out and performed right in front of me, a few times coming within three feet of me to perch on little trees and look right at me. I watched him snapping back and forth, making little jumps that carried him three-five feet-every bound accompanied by a single snap, and when he got going, hopping every which way on his little lek, I couldn’t help but smile. He was apparently displaying not for me but for a female manakin, who came out into the open a moment before the others in my group came and ended the whole romantic interlude.
The next time I came by the lek alone, I was lured in not by the manakin but by the rich whistling of a Chestnut-backed Antbird. This wonderful ground bird, smaller than a robin with almost black feathers and a bright blue patch of bare skin around the eyes, walks this way and that along the rainforest floor, attracted to swarms of army ants. It doesn’t eat the ants, but picks up insects, spiders, and other small creatures scared up by the marching marauders. Antbirds are curious but shy, and I could only find them by searching the ground inch by inch-their loud whistles are ventriloquial and they stay in the thick shadows of the dense tropical forest, but once you find one, it’s easy to keep it in the binoculars for many minutes as it deliberately walks this way and that.
Unfortunately, the antbird I found here just happened to be meandering through the territory of the White-collared Manakin, who apparently wanted to keep his patch of ground free of both debris and other birds. He seemed horrified to find the antbird walking through, and he hopped down right in the antbird’s face and snapped his wings menacingly. The antbird meekly moved a bit to the right to pass by, but the manakin instantly leaped sideways to face him off again. Then the antbird tried veering to the left, but the manakin took another sideways leap into his face again. Antbirds apparently don’t have a reverse gear, and after trying to move out of the way a half dozen more times, this poor bird seemed at a loss. Finally something distracted the manakin and he hopped in a small tree for a moment, and the antbird scurried off, though I must say that scurrying in this case didn’t amount to much in terms of speed. He thrust his head forward in a purposeful manner as he meandered off the territory, and when he was gone, the manakin celebrated his triumph with a snappy little display.
The exchange made me leave Costa Rica as charmed as ever with manakins, and with a new and burgeoning interest in antbirds as well. The world is filled with so many wonderful things that we could each spend a lifetime discovering new delights every day and never reach the end of them.