White bellbirds have the loudest known mating call of any bird

The males blast a song, which sounds like a melodic air horn, in the face of a nearby female

white bellbird

The white bellbird may get its extreme volume in part from its large beak that flares out like a trumpet.

Anselmo d’Affonseca

Make some noise for the white bellbirds of the Brazilian Amazon, now the bird species with the loudest known mating call.

The birds (Procnias albus) reach about 125 decibels on average at the loudest point in one of their songs, researchers report October 21 in Current Biology. Calls of the previous record-holder — another Amazonian bird called the screaming piha (Lipaugus vociferans) — maxed out around 116 decibels on average. This difference means that bellbirds can generate a soundwave with triple the pressure of that made by pihas, says Jeff Podos, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who did the research along with ornithologist Mario Cohn-Haft, of the National Institute of Amazon Research in Manaus, Brazil.

The team measured sound intensity from three pihas and eight bellbirds. Each sounded off at different distances from the scientists. So to make an accurate comparison, the researchers used rangefinder binoculars, with lasers to measure distance, to determine how far away each bird was. Then, they calculated how loud the sound would be a meter from each bird to crown a winner.  

The small white bellbird, which weighs less than 250 grams, appears to be built for creating loud sounds, with thick abdominal muscles and a beak that opens extra wide. “Having this really wide beak helps their anatomy be like a musical instrument,” Podos says.

From the trees of a mountain rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon, two white bellbirds sing different mating songs. The first song is slightly louder than the call of the screaming piha, previously the loudest known bird. The second white bellbird’s song is even louder, crowning bellbirds as the loudest bird species.

Being the loudest may come with a cost: White bellbirds can’t hold a note for long because they run out of air in their lungs. Their loudest call sounds like two staccato beats of an air horn while the calls of screaming pihas gradually build to the highest point.

Bellbirds don’t use their loudest call to communicate across long distances like other animals do, Podos says. Instead, a male white bellbird blasts its loudest song in the face of a nearby female.

Sofie Bates was the Fall 2019 intern at Science News. She holds an undergraduate degree in genetics and a master’s degree in science communication.

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