Science

This Bizarre Bird Is a Master of Choreography

Queen Bey would approve.


Montezuma Oropendola. Video: Bruce Lyon

Anyone who’s ever tried to sing and dance to a Beyonce video will appreciate how hard it is to slay both art forms at once. But done right, that pairing of music and motion—or as most people put it, choreography—can deliver a powerful message.

Male oropendolas get it. Come courting time, the tropical blackbirds exhibit their skills through an outrageous song-and-dance display that says, “Hey, I’m the best you can do.” The show only lasts a few seconds (about as long as the female’s tolerance), so every move and note must be tightly synchronized to achieve maximum romantic effect.

Out of the 10 or so oropendola species, the Montezuma Oropendola may be the only one that can rival Beyonce’s choreography—as confirmed by science. Native to southern Mexico and Central America, this brassy blackbird leads an eclectic lifestyle: It forms sex communes in the canopy with dozen of other individuals and weaves droopy nests that resemble, well, look for yourself. Males and females are both very colorful, with yellow-dipped tails, red-tipped bills, wattled chins, and icy-blue makeup. The males, however, are larger and more promiscuous; if they rank high socially, they get to hold court over an entire harem of mates.

But to do so, they first have to prove that they can get low in two ways. Meredith Miles, a biologist at Wake Forest University who studies body language in birds, recently broke down the Montezuma Oropendola’s ritual into angles and pitch frequencies. By running A/V tests on several oropendola clips from YouTube, Vimeo, and other public media platforms, she and her coauthors were able to link the timing of the most dramatic parts of the bird’s song and dance. Their results were published in Animal Behavior this spring.

According to Miles, the oropendola’s hair-raising stunt (seen in the video above) is a clear example of avian choreography. As the bird swings off its perch to start its 180-degree dip, it lets out a series of tumbling, whistle-like notes. But it doesn't hit the lowest, loudest note (about 500 hertz, or the average pitch of a cello) until it’s fully upside down, showing that the bass is timed perfectly with the body drop. 

The bird also unfurls its wings when it swings, though not in accordance to its voice, Miles says. This means that the motion is mechanistic: The momentum of opening and closing the wings helps the oropendola pull itself upright, without interrupting the fluid choreography.

All together, the peak of the ritual—which Miles calls the “long song”—only lasts 1.5 seconds. But the choreography lives beyond that condensed moment. "Each time you have a different body movement that’s paired with song, it's an opportunity to evolutionarily hone a display,” Miles says. “While these behaviors may not look functional to us, they can be important signals, both on their own and when mixed and amplified with others.”

Like most great performers, the oropendola knows how to make a scene . . . and deliver a message through it. Though we may never be able to read that message, Miles thinks it has something to do with natural selection. Choreography takes a great amount of skill and precision, and so, “the degree to which the [song and dance] are linked shows physical capability,” she says. Variability between individuals is key, too; if there’s no variation, there’s no basis for judgement on choreography.

The connection between choreography and evolution makes sense, especially in the context of human capability; but the idea is still largely new to animal science. For a long time, Miles explains, gestures in birds were written off as extravagant, and the importance of communication was pinned entirely on song. “[This study] doesn't mean all the cool things we've learned about birdsong are untrue,” she says. “It's just another layer of communicating that I think is exciting.”

In short, don’t underestimate a bird’s attempts to impress. They could be the result of centuries of evolution, or hours of band practice in the nest. They could be as empowering as a cowbird finding its voice through its wings; as fierce as a woodpecker drumming a battle cry on an elm; or as flawless as an oropendola dancing to the pitch of its own song. 

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