Smithornis broadbills produce loud wing song by aeroelastic flutter of medial primary wing feathers
AuthorClark, C. J.
Kirschel, A. N. G.
Prum, R. O.
SourceJournal of Experimental Biology
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Broadbills in the genus Smithornis produce a loud brreeeeet during a distinctive flight display. It has been posited that this klaxon-like sound is generated non-vocally with the outer wing feathers (P9, P10), but no scientific studies have previously addressed this hypothesis. Although most birds that make non-vocal communication sounds have feathers with a shape distinctively modified for sound production, Smithornis broadbills do not. We investigated whether this song is produced vocally or with the wings in rufous-sided broadbill (S. rufolateralis) and African broadbill (S. capensis). In support of the wing song hypothesis, synchronized high-speed video and sound recordings of displays demonstrated that sound pulses were produced during the downstroke, subtle gaps sometimes appeared between the outer primary feathers P6-P10, and wingtip speed reached 16 m s-1. Tests of a spread wing in a wind tunnel demonstrated that at a specific orientation, P6 and P7 flutter and produce sound. Wind tunnel tests on individual feathers P5-P10from a male of each species revealed that while all of these feathers can produce sound via aeroelastic flutter, P6 and P7 produce the loudest sounds, which are similar in frequency to the wing song, at airspeeds achievable by the wing tip during display flight. Consistent with the wind tunnel experiments, field manipulations of P6, P7 and P8 changed the timbre of the wing song, and reduced its tonality, demonstrating that P6 and P7 are together the sound source, and not P9 or P10. The resultant wing song appears to have functionally replaced vocal song. © 2016. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd.