White-ruffed Manakins belong to a family of 50 species of small, fruit-eating birds of the Neotropics. Their scientific name is Corapipo altera, and Corapipo means “dancing puppet”. They got that name because the males show off for females, like the two males dancing here:

If you’re curious what that looks like to an ant on the log, check out this Go-Pro clip of 2 males chasing each other around (doing bobbing “butterfly flights”) and then doing their big dive from above the forest canopy, making that “flap-chee-wah” sound.

The adult males are a handsome, glossy, blue-black color with a bright white throat that they can puff out (their “ruff”). The females and the young males are green, blending into the leafy background of their rainforest home. Males in their third year develop what we call the “zorro” plumage: mostly green with a black mask.

White-ruffed manakins live in some of the wettest forests of Central America and in the very North of South America. They like the middle elevations of mountains where they live in the forest understory.

Where White-ruffed Manakins live. Map (c) Birdlife International

Even though they display on logs, White-ruffed Manakins mainly hang out in trees a few meters up. They live on diet of almost all fruit—typically little berries resembling blueberries. Imagine living on blueberries! You’d have to eat a LOT. And they do. In fact, one of the male manakins we were studying ate his body weight in berries in only 1.5 hr.

The females do all the parenting. After visiting several males’ dance courts, she will pick the one she thinks is the sexiest and mate with him. Then she’ll make a flimsy little nest like this and lay her 2 eggs:

Flimy and fragile nest of a White-ruffed Manakin

The moms incubate the eggs and feed the nestlings until they are big enough to leave the nest. Unfortunately, predators like snakes usually find the nests before the young get old enough to fly. Camouflage from predators is probably why the females and young birds are green and why the nests are so flimsy.

What are we trying to find out about manakins with our research? Scientists found out that this bird and about 20% of the other species in Costa Rica migrate up and down mountain slopes each year, similar to migrating from temperate areas to the tropics. In some of our previous work, we found out that those migrations are driven by the heavy rainfall that occurs during the wet season. We think these little birds, who have to eat so much, are escaping big rain storms because they can’t get enough feeding time in to meet their energy needs. What we want to know now is whether it is possible for there to be too much rain for rainforest birds. We think that if so, it could be an important factor in shaping some of the differences in bird behavior and looks between places in the tropics. 

Since 2016, we’ve been studying the White-ruffed manakins at Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio. Grad student Elsie Shogren is leading this work, asking how precipitation and competition among males may affect the display behavior of White-ruffed manakins. One of the ways we study these birds is by marking each one with a unique combination of colored bands on their legs. Here is a little video of that process… from this little manakin’s perspective, we think it might feel like an alien abduction!  

Elsie and her assistants carefully observe and record what adult males, young males, and females do at display sites. We are comparing behavior of the White-ruffed manakins at Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio with birds in a different population living in a much rainier area near Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo. We are also conducting experiments to temporarily change how much competition males perceive near their log. When we broadcast the sounds of other displaying males or prevent males from dancing at nearby display sites, we record if the birds respond to the change in their environment by displaying more or less. This research will help us understand how some of the amazing behaviors of White-ruffed manakins may have evolved,and why some males are more successful than others in attracting females to their dancing stage.

We think that White-ruffed Manakins are super cool and very cute. But we have friends (other researchers) who would argue that “their” manakins are even more amazing! Check out our  YouTube playlist of manakin videos! You can also find out more about many other species of manakins and the research being done by our network of collaborators all over the Americas. If you’d like to learn more about the birds of Volcan Tenorio park, here are two posters we created that hangs at the entrance.

We are extremely grateful for funding from the National Science Foundation that makes this work possible (DEB-1646806).