Saturday, June 14, 2008

Natural History Corner — the Papageno Bird

Report on the the mating ritual of Reclutus papagenus of Central America

by John James Autobahn

Recent behavioral observations of a little-known member of the motmot family (Momotidae) have discovered a previously unknown, and possibly unique, type of mating display.

The Papageno Bird (Reclutus papagenus) is monotypic within the genus Reclutus. Although related to the beautiful Blue-crowned motmot (Momotus momota), the drab Papageno has almost none of his cousin's flashy blue plumage, showing only a thin stripe of iridescent turquoise across the throat of this medium-sized dark brown-gray bird; along with an arrangement of concentric circles of bright blue and viridian, alternating, within the broad tips of the two elongated tail-feathers characteristic of Momotidae. The females, entirely brown-grey, lack both the tail spots and throat stripe.

What Reclutus lacks in plumage, he makes up for in talent and ingenuity. In the highlands surrounding the common border of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the Papageno takes advantage of the rich diversity of other bird species to create his remarkable mating display. Toward the end of the dry season, in early April, the male attracts a mate in his own peculiar manner. After selecting a suitable set of tree branches, in an area crowded with other calling and displaying bird species, he perches in a secluded spot and gets to work. He begins by imitating the mating call of some other nearby species. He usually doesn't have long to wait before some outraged suitor comes to investigate the appearance of a rival in his territory. Papageno hides in the shadows, waits until the other male is about to leave, and then repeats the call. After just a few minutes of carefully-timed calls and pauses, he has the infuriated suitor perched on a chosen branch, unable to locate the intruder, calling and bobbing in a furious display of sexual jealousy and confusion.

At this point, the Papageno repeats the trick, but with the call of yet another species. Once the next male appears, he continues to tease and infuriate him, while repeating taunts of first visitor just often enough to keep him from leaving. Then it's on to a third call, to attract a third angry male.

Typically, the Papageno can attract four or five infuriated males of completely unrelated species, and, like those old plate-spinners on the Ed Sullivan show, keep them all active by dextrous timing. One particularly skilled Reclutus was observed to have nine furious males bobbing and dancing and calling for more than a hour!

Once this line-up is in place, the Papageno begins to show himself, perching in front of, and slightly below the others, swinging his distinctive long tail back and forth, in rhythm with the hoots, greeps, and wakka-wakkas of his chorus, as if conducting them. By this time however, the displaying birds seem entranced, absorbed by their combined performance, and do not seem to pay him much attention.

At this point, the female, if suitably impressed, will perch some distance away on the same branch as the maestro, and then sidle gradually towards him. After watching the show for several minutes, bobbing her head in the rhythm he has established, she may move right next to him, with contact signalling her willingness to mate. Copulation is rapid, completed in less than five seconds, but is usually repeated several more times over the course of five or ten minutes. In between these encounters, the male (like the plate spinner) must continue his tail-wagging and occasional mimickry calls in order to maintain the love chorus. Finally, once the Papagenos have mated, they fly off together to inspect and repair the female's previously-prepared nesting area, usually a secluded ground hole at the base of a tree. Soon after, the chorus breaks up, as the performers decide that they have at last driven off their rivals.

It is not yet known whether the chorus birds ever "wise up" to this ruse, or whether the same birds can be bamboozled repeatedly. Further observations of the Papageno are anticipated in the next several years.


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