They are compact stubby birds with short tails, broad and rounded wings, and big heads. The bill is short and has a wide gap. Females and first-year males have dull green plumage; most species are sexually dichromatic in their plumage, the males being mostly black with striking colours in patches, and in some species having long, decorative tail or crown feathers or erectile throat feathers.
Manakins occur from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, Paraguay, and southern Brazil, and on Trinidad and Tobago as well. They are highly arboreal and are almost exclusively forest and woodland birds. Most species live in humid tropical lowlands, with a few in dry forests, river forests, and the subtropical Andes. Some highland species have altitudinal migrations.
Many manakin species have spectacular lekking courtship rituals, which are especially elaborate in the genera Pipra and Chiroxiphia. The members of the genera Machaeropterus and Manacus have heavily modified wing feathers, which they use to make buzzing and snapping sounds. In Costa Rica the Red-capped Manakin is known as Michael Jackson for its particular way of dancing backward. Of the 48 species 8 can be found in Costa Rica.