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Singing and dancing cowbird style

Frames from high-speed video used to show that cowbird song and visual display are synchronized. [Image courtesy of Brent G. Cooper and Franz Goller]
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Cowbirds may be the ultimate Broadway performers - they synchronize their song and dance - and during certain moves, dancing makes the singing easier.

Male brown-headed cowbirds hold their breath and take an extended break from singing, however, during the most complex wing dances, according to a new study. The authors suggest that this silence avoids the most severe biological and mechanical conflicts between singing and dancing.

Male brown-headed cowbirds are a little smaller than robins, have glossy, black-green bodies and live in most parts of North America.

Animal communication scientists are studying the physical side of cowbird song and dance because they would never get an answer to a question like,

"Okay cowbirds, what do you REALLY mean when you're singing and doing the 'bill-tilt' or 'topple-over' at the same time?"

By understanding how singing and dancing impacts the birds' bodies, they hope to discover the message of the communication.

Brenton Cooper and Franz Goller from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah, say that there may not be a clear answer to the question, "Which came first, the song or the dance?" because they may have evolved together.

While the intricate communication details are still unclear, cowbirds use their wing flapping and song singing to attract potential mates and to mark their territory.

They lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species. Birds that trick other birds into raising their young are called "brood parasites." To make the trick even more effective, the cowbird egg usually hatches before the other eggs. With this head start, the baby cowbirds get more food and have a better chance of survival than the other babies.

The study appears in the 23 January, 2004 issue of the journal Science.


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