Manakins: Pipridae

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MANAKINS: Pipridae



Manakins are some of the most brightly colored, energetic, attractive birds of the Western Hemisphere. They are generally small, around the size of hummingbirds. Most are less than 5 inches (13 centimeters) long and weigh only 0.35 to 0.70 ounces (10 to 20 grams). Manakins live up to fifteen years, an unusually long life for birds this small.

Female and young manakins of both sexes tend to be olive-green or black. Males, however, have intense jewel-like colors, with white, red, blue, or yellow areas on the top of the head, neck, and across the back, depending on the particular species. Young males go through several molts, or sets of feathers, before they achieve the full color of adults. In some species the males have long tail feathers that almost double the length of their body. Others have modified wing feathers that can be used by the males to make whirring or snapping sounds as part of their courtship and mating rituals.


Manakins are found continuously from Mexico to Argentina and on the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Manakins live year round in the same location. They do not migrate, or relocate seasonally.


Manakins prefer the understory, which is the part of the forest midway between the forest floor and the tops of the trees. They live in thick, subtropical woodlands and lowland tropical rainforests.


Manakins eat fruits and berries. They also eat insects that they snap out of the air during quick, short flights.


Manakins do not form bonded pairs when they mate, nor do the males stay with the female after mating to help build a nest or raise the young. The dominant, or strongest and most attractive, male mates with many females during the breeding season. Younger, less attractive males may not mate at all.

Manakins are best known for their spectacular courtship rituals. When a male wants to attract a female, he removes the leaves and twigs on the ground in a small area, often about 3 square feet (1 square meter). This area is called the lek or lek court. In some species, males clear areas next to each other, creating very large lek courts.

In most species of manakin, two unrelated males form a lek partnership where they sing and dance in a complex, coordinated pattern unique to their species. This activity is called lekking. Females come to the lek to watch and choose a mate. They may visit many lek courts and watch many displays before mating. Often male lek partnerships last for years. One bird is definitely dominant and gets to mate with the majority of females. The other bird is a sort of apprentice, apparently learning from the dominant male and perfecting his own display.

Lekking can go on for quite a while and requires a lot of energy. Some species of manakin have modified feathers that they use to make snapping or whirring noises while making short flights during lekking. Others do their coordinated song and dance full of hops and flutters along horizontal branches. In the end, the female makes her decision, and flies away to mate with the chosen male.

Females build a nest of grass, usually over water. They lay one or two eggs and incubate (keep warm for hatching) them for seventeen to twenty-one days. The chicks fledge, grow their flying feathers, in thirteen to fifteen days.


Both their beauty and their behavior make manakins attractive to birdwatchers and ecotourists who want to observe the natural world while leaving it as undisturbed as possible. In this way, manakins may have an indirect economic impact on tourism in some countries. In addition, the colorful males are often printed on souvenirs such as T-shirts and are represented on the postage stamps of several countries.


As of 2003, the Araripe manakin of Brazil was considered Critically Endangered, facing a extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. This manakin has been found only in one location, and its small population is under pressure from human development. Wied's tyrant-manakin, also found in Brazil, is Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction. Two other Brazilian species are considered Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction.


Physical characteristics: The female and male long-tailed manakin look very different. Females are about 5.5 inches (14 centimeters) in length, while males are 8.5 to 10.5 inches (21 to 27 centimeters) long. The difference in length is due to the male's much longer central tail feathers. Females are olive green with orange legs and feet. Males are black with a blue back and red crest on the head. Young males do not develop full adult coloration until they are four years old.

Geographic range: Long-tailed manakins are found in the western part of southern Mexico, and along the western edge of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.

Habitat: Long-tailed manakins live in thick, dense forests, along forest borders, and along the edge of mangrove swamps.

Diet: Like other manakins, these birds eat berries and insects.

Behavior and reproduction: Long-tailed manakins put on one of the more spectacular displays of lekking. A pair, or occasionally three males, do a coordinated dance in which the birds sit on a horizontal branch. One jumps and hovers above the branch. When he lands, the other bird jumps and hovers. This dance is accompanied by a song, with each bird singing a distinct part. One male is dominant, and almost always gets to mate with the female.

Scientists have wondered why the non-dominant male participates in this time and energy consuming courtship ritual when he does not get to mate, despite all the effort he has put out. They have concluded that pairs of male long-tailed manakins stay together in a loose relationship for up to ten years. The non-dominant male practices his singing and dancing and waits for the dominant male to die or leave the lek. He then becomes the dominant male, mating with the females and taking on an apprentice of his own. This pattern is made possible because these birds live for up to fifteen years.

Long-tailed manakins and people: Long-tailed manakins are one of the better-studied species in this family. Scientists have recorded the courtship behavior of this bird in detail. These birds may have an indirect positive impact on the local economy by attracting birdwatchers and ecotourists to the region.

Conservation status: Long-tailed manakins are common in the locations where they live. They are not in danger of extinction. ∎


Physical characteristics: Wire-tailed manakins are about 4.5 inches (11 centimeters) long. The females are dull olive-colored birds, but the males are brilliantly colored. Males have red from the top of their head through their upper back, a black back, bright yellow undersides, and long, thin tail feathers.

Geographic range: These birds are found in northeastern Peru, southeastern Colombia, eastern Ecuador, and in the rainforests of Venezuela and Brazil.

Habitat: Wire-tailed manakins prefer the edges of humid, tropical forests, forest clearings, and the edges of agricultural land.

Diet: Wire-tailed manakins eat berries and fruit. They hunt for food near the top part of the forest close to the canopy.

Behavior and reproduction: Wire-tailed manakins do not clear a lek space on the ground. Instead, they create perches about 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters) above the ground in the understory. Each male may have several of these display perches. Although they have a distinctive call, wire-tailed manakins are mostly silent while they are lekking. Their courtship ritual consists of short flights, swoops, and jumps along a branch. They also lift the feathers of their lower back like a fan.

Wire-tailed manakins and people: Wire-tailed manakins are quieter and less noticeable than some of the other members of this family. They are of interest mainly to serious birdwatchers and ecotourists.

Conservation status: Wire-tailed manakins are not threatened. ∎



Hilty, Steven L. Birds of Venezuela. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Kircher, John. A Neotropical Companion: An Introduction to the Animals, Plants, and Ecosystems of the New World Tropics, 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Ridgley, Robert S., and Guy Tudor. The Birds of South America. Vol 2, The Suboscine Passerines. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.


McDonald, David B., and Wayne K. Potts. "Cooperative Display and Relatedness Among Males in a Lek-Mating Bird." Science (November 11, 1995): 1030–1033.

"The Buddy System." Discover (April 1995): 18–19.

Web sites:

Robertson, Don. "Bird Families of the World." CREAGRUS@Monterey Bay. (accessed on May 4, 2004).

"Manakins and the Plant Family Melastomataceae." Ecology Online. (accessed on May 4, 2004).

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Manakins: Pipridae

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