This candidate for the loudest bird in the world screams from the treetops with chainsaw volume, directly into the ear of a potential mate.
Meet the white bellbird, a member of the cotinga family that is famous for species with strange courtship displays. A pair of researchers measured the white bellbird’s songs and found that they reached volumes up to 125 decibels, as loud as an ambulance siren. This beats the previous loudest recorded bird, the screaming piha, which peaks at 116 decibels.
Researchers tracked and recorded at least eight white bellbirds and three screaming pihas in their native habitat of mountainous south American rainforests. The bellbirds have two songs: One is just slightly louder than the piha’s on average, but the second, less common song was around twice as loud. Imagine something louder than an ambulance siren coming from a skinny, pigeon-sized bird with a silly dangly thing flapping under its beak.
Not only are the white bellbirds loud, but the researchers observed the birds blasting their extra-loud song directly into the faces of the females that landed on their perch. Why would the birds subject themselves to these potentially damaging volumes? The researchers hypothesised that the females were willing to take on the risks in order to assess their potential mates.
“Female bellbirds might actively balance an interest in assessing males at close range while trying to limit hearing damage,” the authors wrote in the correspondence published in Current Biology.
The white bellbird is one of four bellbird species, each with spooky and often ear-shattering calls. The three-wattled bellbird in Central America similarly tolerates these loud blasts at close range, though in some cases it’s the males, rather than females, who withstand the blast, perhaps in an attempt to overtake another male’s territory.
One researcher not involved in the study was impressed with the work, given the effort it takes to study these birds as well as to study bird volume more generally. “Volume is hard to study, because of everything from the wind to the medium that you’re sitting in,” Richard Prum, evolutionary ornithologist at Yale University, told Gizmodo. “These guys had all sorts of features to control for variations in order to give individualized measurements in the environment they were in.”
How does a pigeon-sized bird make such a loud sound? The bases of birds’ larynxes are equipped with a special organ called a syrinx that produces noise. A bird of comparable size might have a syrinx about the size of a lentil, but the bellbird has a relatively huge, complicated, chickpea-size syrinx. Understanding the mechanism completely and how it produces such volume requires further work, Prum said.
Surely a male bird screaming loudly and directly into a female’s ear with the hopes of mating is a metaphor for something.