Of the approximately sixty species of manakin known to science, the rainforests of southeastern Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve are home to at least nine species. Of these, the most commonly sighted manakin species are the band-tailed manakin (Pipra fasciicauda), the round-tailed manakin (Ceratopipra chloromeros), and the fiery-capped manakin (Machaeropterus pyrocephalus).
The male band-tailed manakin has a bright red head and upper breast, while its cheeks, throat and lower breast are yellow. These striking colors are heightened by the contrast with its black back and wings. The round-tailed manakin has an entirely black body, capped by a startlingly livid red head and crest. For its part, the fiery-capped manakin sports a golden yellow cap bisected by a red stripe, a green tail and wings, and pinkish-white breast and belly.
But in tropical forests like Tambopata National Reserve, filled with hundreds of brightly-colored bird species, it is not the extravagant plumage of these manakins which makes them so special, but rather the unusual behavior they display during courtship.
The males of these small birds commonly found in the rainforest understory, where they feed mostly on fruit but will also take insects, are blessed with bright plumage while –as so often occurs in the bird world- females are dull green or brown in color, as are the juveniles of both sexes. The name “manakin” is derived from the Dutch word “mannekijn”, meaning “little man”. Typically, across species, manakins range from around 7 to 15 inches in length (3 to 6 inches).
Male manakins display their bright plumage to attract a mate in elaborate courtship displays known as “lekking” (from the Swedish word for “play”). Males from several bird species, including Peru’s national bird, the cloud forest dwelling cock-of-the-rock, gather to form leks, where they compete for the attention of watching females in intricately choreographed dances. In the case of manakins, males carefully select the setting for their display. Some species tend to choose saplings in the forest understory, while other species seem to prefer patches of open forest floor or perhaps a fallen, flattish log where they can perform their dance.
Across different manakin species, the choreography employed by these colorful male dancers may include the raising and rattling of their wings, the swaying back and forth of their tail, or rapid, repeated jumping movements accompanied by mating calls. Some species have been observed performing coordinated displays, in which the alpha males that dominate the birds’ territory are joined in their dance by beta males that will play no part in the mating resulting from the communal courtship display.