Lightning-speed songbird tap dance captured by high-speed camera

A beautiful lightning-speed songbird tap dance, too fast for the naked eye to see, has been recorded by scientists using a high-speed camera. The blue-capped cordon-bleu not only sings and bobs its head up and down to win over a mate, but also has some incredibly fast dance moves.

The researchers, who wrote about their findings in the open-access journal Scientific Reports, explained that the rapid step-dancing carried out during courtship is performed by both the male and female bird.

We have long-known that socially monogamous songbird males have a number of singing and dance techniques to attract a female. The authors say their study is the first example of a multimodal dance display that is not unique to just the male.

Songbird tap dance and bobbingThe blue-capped cordon-bleu’s simultaneous bob and step. (Image: Scientific Reports)

Tap dance performed by the female too

In the case of the blue-capped cordon-bleu, a socially monogamous songbird that is native to Ethiopia, South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, and Tanzania in East Africa, both sexes perform courtship displays that include songs, lots of bobbing, and ultra-fast feet movements.

Nao Ota and Masayo Soma, from The Graduate School of Life Science, Hokkaido University in Japan, and Manfred Gahr, from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, recorded the birds’ courtship displays with a high-speed camera.



They assumed that the rapid tap-dance produces vibrations and maybe non-vocal sounds.

The dance performances did not differ between males and females, but varied among individuals, the authors wrote. When the mate was on the same perch, both sexes intensified their dance performances.

The blue-capped cordon-bleu’s courtship displays included several multimodal (tactile, visual, acoustic), multicomponent (vocal and non-vocal sounds) and motor behaviours (stepping, singing and bobbing).

bird tap dance during courtshipIn this photograph, you can see one of the bird’s feet raised as it performs its courtship tap dance. (Image: Max Planck Institute for Ornithology)

The BBC quoted Masayo Soma as saying:

“It’s a really rare phenomenon that songbirds produce non-vocal sounds. Some species produce non-vocal sounds with their wings, but they usually don’t use their feet.”

Manfred Gahr said:

“It is very astonishing. Maybe more birds are doing it, but it just has not been seen.”

In an Abstract in the journal, the authors concluded:

“The fact that both sexes of this socially monogamous songbird perform such a complex courtship display is a novel finding and suggests that the evolution of multimodal courtship display as an intersexual communication should be considered.”

Citation: “Tap dancing birds: the multimodal mutual courtship display of males and females in a socially monogamous songbird,” Nao Ota, Manfred Gahr & Masayo Soma. Scientific Reports. 19 November, 2015. DOI: doi:10.1038/srep16614.

Video – Songbird’s ultra-fast tap dance

In this video, you can appreciate how the blue-capped cordon-bleu’s super-fast tap dance can only be seen in slow motion. At normal speed humans cannot observe the footwork.

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