Cowbird Song and Dance

January 23, 2004

Like many songbirds, male brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) can sing and dance, coordinating sometimes elaborate movements of their bodies, tails and wings with their song. They even end a song by folding their wings and bowing. While they can sing and dance during most of a performance, cowbirds remain silent during the most elaborate wing movements report Brenton G. Cooper and Franz Goller in the January 23 Science. Researchers have not reported such silent periods in other songbirds who do not display wing movements during song.

Singing requires fine control of throat and chest muscles, some of the same muscles used for wing movements and breathing. Using three laboratory measurement techniques, Cooper and Goller show that singing and dancing are tightly coordinated. The silent periods are coordinated with wing movements themselves, not with breathing motions, but may occur because the birds cannot sing, dance and breathe all at the same time. The silent period may also allow the bird to resynchronize song and dance. Cooper and Goller suggest that song and dance evolved together in cowbirds.

“Multimodal Signals: Enhancement and Constraint of Song Motor Patterns by Visual Display,” Brenton G. Cooper and Franz Goller, Science, January 23, 2004 - Abstract © 2004 Stephen Hart, Figure and audio (below) © 2004 Brenton G. Cooper and Franz Goller

Brenton G. Cooper, Department of Biology, University of Utah