a web page by Don Roberson
  • 51 species in the Neotropics
  • DR personal total: 22 species (43%), 5 photos

The Manakins are tiny gems of the New World tropics. In many species the males are particularly attractive for their bright colors and lekking displays. They are very small birds of the forest interior, hard to see and even harder to photograph. A flash was used to capture most of the birds on this page. The Orange-collared Manakin (left) displays on leks near the ground in humid lowlands from the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, to western Colombia. Up to two dozen striking males flit over the cleared "court" with its vertical saplings, audibly clicking their wings as they jump back and forth.

Such displays are similar in male White-collared Manakin (below), a species of northeastern South America and Trinidad. Snow (1962) studied a lek in Trinidad, at Asa Wright Nature Reserve, in detail, and that lek is still there today (and was where this photo was taken).

Other species, such as Red-capped Manakin (right), perform their dances up higher in the sub-canopy, looking almost tailless (but there are species with long tails). According to Sick (1993), the manakins – like cotingids – evolved together with various types of tropical forest. Relying primarily on berries which were abundant year-round, these birds were free to evolve elaborate courtship displays by outlandishly customed males; plainly-patterned females come to lek sites to mate with the most prominent dancing male. Incredible footage of one manakin lek – in which only the alta male mates with the attracted females despite a dance display by several as a group – is in the Life of Birds video by David Attenborough. A scientific perspective on this type of display is in Prum (1990).

The cryptic females build nests, lay eggs, and raise the young alone. Two examples of female manakins are shown below.

female Golden-headed Manakin

female Red-capped Manakin

Although all the male manakins shown on this page are strikingly attired – like the Golden-headed Manakin (left) – not all members of the family share this character. Some species are quite plain and in some there is no sexual dimorphism, with both sexes an unmarked forest green; the tyrant-manakins (genus Neopelma) are examples.

One plain bird which is often listed with the manakins is Sapayoa Sapayoa aenigma. Molecular studies have shown it is not a manakin but instead a remnant example of an Old World assemblage near the Broadbills [see separate family page]. Recent evidence suggests that the three species of piprites [genus Piprites] are also not manakins but are best placed within a new family, the Tityridae. The enigmatic Schiffornis assemblage, which had once been included in the manakins (e.g., Ridgely & Tudor 1994), are also part of the new Tityras family. These have been handled in various ways in the recent past (e.g., Sibley & Ahlquist 1990, Sibley & Monroe 1990, Lanyon 1985, Prum & Lanyon 1989), but it now appears that the best course is to place them in the newly minted family; Ericson et al. (2006).

While most manakins are birds of the forest understory, a few are canopy dwellers. The Tiny Tyrant-Manakin Tyranneutes virescens is, at 6-7 grams, one of the smallest birds on earth; only some hummingbirds are smaller. Yet it is the plumage, vocalizations, and behavior of the understory manakins that causes the greatest wonder. While walking quieting in the forest, one listens for the repetitive calls of the males or for the rapid whirr of their wingbeats as they buzz from one display branch to another. In any visit to the Neotropical lowlands, seeking out the local manakins is one of the prime pleasures of the trip.

In a visit to southwest and central Brazil in August 1999, we encountered a number of very impressive manakins, including Helmeted Antilophia galeata, with its red crest bending forward like an old Roman helmet; the well-named Snowy-capped Pipra nattereri, and, best of all, the Fiery-capped Manakin Machaeropterus pyrocephalus. The latter was a lek near a salt-lick in the forest near Rio Cristalino Lodge in the very middle of the Brazilian Amazon Basin. The tiny active males, no bigger than my thumb, were candy-striped in red on white below with an orange top of the head and a red crest. Wow.

Some day I must seek out the recently-discovered Araripe Manakin Antilophia bokermanni, restricted to a tiny patch of evergreen forest in northeastern Brazil. It was found in 1996 and described in 1998. With its forward-dipping red crest it recalls Helmeted Manakin, but the rest of the body plumage is white, contrasting with black wings and tail. It is listed as critically endangered, with a population estimate of just 800 birds, and declining. Some excellent photos appear in Hirschfeld (2007).

Photos: The male Orange-collared Manakin Manacus vitellinus was at Rio Tigre, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, on 26 Dec 2007. The male White-collared Manakin Manacus manacus was at Asa Wright Nature Reserve, Trinidad, on 25 Dec 2006. The male Red-capped Manakin Pipra mentalis was along the Chiva-Chiva trail, Canal Zone, Panama, on 12 Jan 1981; the female Red-capped Manakin was at Rio Tigre, Costa Rica, on 26 Dec 2007. The female and the male Golden-headed Manakin Pipra erythrocephala was at Asa Wright, Trinidad, in Dec 2006. All photos © 2008 Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note: There is no "family book" per se, but the account by Snow (2004) in the Handbook of the Birds of the World series serves that purpose admirably. The collection of photographs there is astounding. However, it includes Sapayoa and birds in the Schiffornis assemblage which are now assigned to other families.

Literature cited:

Ericson, P.G.P., D. Zuccon, J.I. Ohlson, U.S. Johansson, H. Alvarenga, and R.O. Prum. 2006. Higher-level phylogeny and morphological evolution of tyrant flycatchers, cotingas, manakins, and their allies (Aves: Tyrannida). Molec. Phylogenetics Evol. 40: 471-483.

Hirschfeld, E., ed. 2007. Rare Birds Yearbook 2008. MagDig Media, Shropshire, U.K.

Lanyon, S. M. 1985. Molecular perspective on higher-level relationships in the Tyrannidae (Aves). Syst. Zool. 34: 404-418.

Prum, R. O. 1990. Phylogenetic analysis of the evolution of display behavior in the Neotropical Manakins (Aves: Pipridae). Ethology 84: 202-231.

Prum, R. O., and W. E. Lanyon. 1989. Monophyly and phylogeny of the Schiffornis group (Tyrnnoidea). Condor 91: 444-461.

Ridgely, R. S., and G. Tudor. 1994. The Birds of South America. Vol. 2: The Suboscine Passerines. Univ of Texas, Austin.

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: a Study of Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sick, H. 1993. Birds in Brazil: A Natural History. Translated from Portuguese by W. Belton. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Snow, D.W. 1962. A field study of Black-and-white Manakin, Manacus manacus, in Trinidad. Zoologica 47: 65-104.

Snow, D.W. 2004. Family Pipridae (Manakins), pp. 110 –169 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & J. Sargatal, eds). Vol. 9. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.




  page created 30 May 2000, significantly revised 3 Feb 2008  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved