Manakins are squat, compact birds, with short, rounded wings and a short tail. However, in some species the tail of the male is greatly lengthened by the occurrence of long, thin extensions, sometimes longer than the rest of the body. Manakins have a short beak, slightly hooked at the tip. Manakins are skilled and maneuverable fliers.
Male manakins of most species are very brightly colored, with brilliant patterns of red, yellow, blue, or white on a background of black or dark grey. Female manakins are much less brilliant, and are typically olive-green in color.
Manakins are highly active birds. They commonly fly-catch insects, which are a major component of their diet. Manakins even utilize aerial sallies to pluck fruit, another of their important foods.
Manakins are famous for their elaborate courtship rituals, which are among the most complex of any of the birds. The most celebrated courtships involves species in which the males display at leks, or communal assembly areas where males gather to display to each other and to females as they arrive seeking a potential mate.
Individual males of the white bearded manakins (Manacus spp.) clear a small, approximately 3 ft (1 sq m) area of the forest floor of leaves, twigs, and other litter, as do other males. In this way a large lek of as many as 70 courts can develop, over an area as wide as 98 ft (30 m). These courts are the places where the individual male birds perform their pre-nuptial displays to females that arrive from far and wide, to choose their beaux from the many males on hopeful display.
The actual displays vary greatly among the species of manakins, but they generally involve quick, ritualized movements. Those of the golden-headed manakins (Pipra spp.) are relatively well known, and include quick slidings along a horizontal branch, fleet turnarounds on the branch, and rapid flutterings of the wings, which produce sharp, snappy noises. The males also execute rapid flights over a distance of less than 98 ft (30 m), somehow making ripping noises with the wings. These displays are carried out even in the absence of an attending female, but they are especially intense when the male knows that a potential mate is nearby, and watching, and hopefully choosing.