Birds of paradise are extraordinary birds. The males grow plumage that comes in unusual shapes and brilliant colors. There are 39 species of birds of paradise (“cendarawasih”). Most live in New Guinea, or islands near New Guinea. They tend to be few in number, elusive and difficult and expensive to find. [Source: Much of the information in this article if from David Attenborough’s “The Life of Birds,” Princeton University Press, 1998]

Mel White wrote in National Geographic, “In New Guinea kangaroos climb trees, and butterflies the size of Frisbees dart through rain forests where egg-laying mammals scuttle across the muck. Frogs sport noses like Cyrano’s, and the rivers are full of rainbow fish. Yet none of New Guinea’s wild wonders have fascinated scientists as deeply as the creatures that 19th-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace called “the most extraordinary and the most beautiful of the feathered inhabitants of the earth”: the birds of paradise. The 39 species are found only in New Guinea and a few nearby areas, and despite decades of exploration and research, no one had ever succeeded in seeing them all—until now. [Source: Mel White, National Geographic, December 2011 |+|]

“The brilliant plumes have been prized as decorative objects in Asia for thousands of years. Hunters who traded the first specimens to Europeans in the 16th century often removed the birds’ wings and legs to emphasize plumes. This inspired a notion that they were literally the birds of the gods, floating through the heavens without ever alighting, gathering sustenance from the paradisiacal mists. |+|

The bird of paradise family is thought to be distantly related to crows. One species, the MacGregor bird of paradise, looks somewhat like a crow. They have small patches of yellow around their eyes and red on their wings, but otherwise are black. They are monogamous and don't have elaborate courtship rituals. This is because they live in the relatively harsh highlands and have to devote a lot of time to collecting food.

In Indonesia you can find bird of paradise in Kepala Burung and the north coast of Pulau Yapen in Papua, the Aru island in the Moluccas, on Waego, Missol, Batanta and Salawati islands off the coast of Sorong, in arts of the Teluk Cendarawasih. Trips to look for them can be organized in Biak, Jayabura, and Sorong.

Bird of Paradise Characteristics

Birds of paradise species live primarily in lowland tropical forests and vary is size from a magpie to robin. They feed primarily on fruit and insects. Females lay two or three eggs in a nest. Females and young males from all these species look remarkably similar. They are mostly brown with pale breasts and speckled backs. Many species have very thin, curled “tail-wires” up to 30 centimeters long that make a loud screeching noise when they fly.

Birds are some of the brightest, most eye-catching animals in the world. How do they do it? Birds-of-paradise use pigments to grow vivid feathers as well as iridescence to produce a shimmering, glittering effect. Differences between these two types of color influence how males use them during display. Learn more about the inner workings of color in this section. [Source: Cornell University - ]

Birds use their feathers for three basic purposes: flight, protection from the elements, and displays. Male birds-of-paradise add to their brilliant colors with specially modified feathers that flutter conspicuously or allow them to transform their shape as they court females. This section explores how these extreme feathers evolved and are put to use in displays. -

They may be known for their variety of appearance, but the birds-of-paradise are equally impressive for the diversity of their sounds. Males use their voices to broadcast their location and entice distant females to come and look. When females approach, males turn on the visuals, which often come with their own more intimate sounds. -

Birds-of-paradise are closely related to the corvids. Birds-of-paradise range in size from the king bird-of-paradise at 50 g (1.8 oz) and 15 cm (5.9 in) to the curl-crested manucode at 44 cm (17 in) and 430 g (15 oz). The male black sicklebill, with its long tail, is the longest species at 110 cm (43 in). In most species, the tails of the males are larger and longer than the female, the differences ranging from slight to extreme. The wings are rounded and in some species structurally modified on the males in order to make sound. There is considerable variation in the family with regard to bill shape. Bills may be long and decurved, as in the sicklebills and riflebirds, or small and slim like the Astrapias. As with body size bill size varies between the sexes, although species where the females have larger bills than the male are more common, particularly in the insect eating species. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Plumage variation between the sexes is closely related to breeding system. The manucodes and paradise-crow, which are socially monogamous, are sexually monomorphic. So are the two species of Paradigalla, which are polygamous. All these species have generally black plumage with varying amounts of green and blue iridescence. The female plumage of the dimorphic species is typically drab to blend in with their habitat, unlike the bright attractive colors found on the males. Younger males of these species have female-like plumage, and sexual maturity takes a long time, with the full adult plumage not being obtained for up to seven years. This affords the younger males the protection from predators of more subdued colours, and also reduces hostility from adult males. +

Bird of Paradise Behavior and Diet

Many birds fluff out their feathers as part of a display—think of cooing pigeons or strutting turkeys. But birds-of-paradise take it much farther than most birds. The males extend specially shaped feathers, lining them up precisely to change the bird's outline into a new shape. In this section we'll explore different ways and feathers that some species use to get the job done. [Source: Cornell University - ]

By the time a male bird-of-paradise reaches adulthood, he's got all the building blocks of a display. But he won't be successful until he learns how to put all those sounds, colors, and display feathers into the correct sequence that a female is looking for. This section examines how males choreograph their displays, from early practice sessions to mastering the finest details. -

It seems incredible, but even males with loud calls, brilliant colors, the ability to shape shift, and perfect dance moves are not guaranteed to win a mate. At the end of a male's display, females move in to inspect closely and sometimes touch the male before making a final decision. This is one reason why birds-of-paradise are so extraordinary: the extreme choosiness of females. -

The diet of the birds-of-paradise is dominated by fruit and arthropods, although small amounts of nectar and small vertebrates may also be taken. The ratio of the two food types varies by species, with fruit predominating in some species, and arthropods dominating the diet in others. The ratio of the two will affect other aspects of the behaviour of the species, for example frugivorous species tend to feed in the forest canopy, whereas insectivores may feed lower down in the middle storey. Frugivores are more social than the insectivores, which are more solitary and territorial. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Even the birds-of-paradise that are primarily insect eaters will still take large amounts of fruit; and the family is overall an important seed disperser for the forests of New Guinea, as they do not digest the seeds. Species that feed on fruit will range widely searching for fruit, and while they may join other fruit eating species at a fruiting tree they will not associate with them otherwise and will not stay with other species long. Fruit are eaten while perched and not from the air, and birds-of-paradise are able to use their feet at tools to manipulate and hold their food, allowing them to extract certain capsular fruit. There is some niche differention in fruit choice by species and any one species will only consume a limited number of fruit types compared to the large choice available. For example the trumpet manucode and crinkle-collared manucode will eat mostly figs, whereas the Lawes's parotia focuses mostly on berries and the superb bird-of-paradise and raggiana bird-of-paradise take mostly capsular fruit. +

Birds of Paradise the People of New Guinea

Tribal people in New Guinea use bird of paradise feathers for headdresses and other ornaments. In the past they traded feathers with Europeans who also used them as decoration. In the Spice islands islanders still make silver copies of Portuguese conquistador helmets with bird of paradise feathers.

Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic, “The indigenous people of New Guinea revered the birds long before outsiders paid heed. The finest plumes were used as bride price, and the birds figure prominently in local myths as ancestors and clan totems. They are revered still. "We love these birds," says a lowland tribesman. "The people of my family are birds of paradise." [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, Tim Laman, July 2007 ]

“Anthropologist Gillian Gillison of the University of Toronto lived among New Guinea tribes for more than a decade. She points to a myth in which a girl places her brother's lifeless body in a hollow tree. She strikes the tree, and birds of paradise explode upward like smoke and downward like fire. The smoke represents dark, highland birds, the fire vivid, lowland species. "To local people, the feathers are related to the spirit flying," she says. "They also symbolize a birth. They're the origin of the world."

"Locals will tell you they went into the forest and copied their rituals from the birds," says Gillison. At highland sing-sings, now more tourist entertainment than true ritual, the painted and mud-daubed dancers still evoke the birds with their movements and lavish costumes. "By wearing the feathers, you get back the part of yourself that living takes away," Gillison says. "You capture the animal's life force. It makes you a warrior."

“Headdresses, some so wide and weighty that you'd expect the wearer's neck to buckle, bear groves of feathers and whole birds skewered and upended. Black astrapia tails stand tall among plumes of the lesser bird of paradise. The iridescent breastplate of the blue bird of paradise glows among intact parrots. And a King of Saxony's white head ribbon, threaded through a woman's nose, bounces as she dances—much as when the live birds bob to attract a mate. Surprisingly few birds die for these costumes nowadays. Ceremonial feathers are passed down from generation to generation. And although local people are still permitted to hunt birds of paradise for traditional uses, hunters usually target older males with full plumage, leaving younger males to continue breeding.

History of Birds of Paradise and Europeans

Early European explorers though the birds lived entirely on dew and nectar and never touched the ground. This is because early specimens given to European had their feet removed. That is why they were given the scientific name “apoda” by Linnaeus, which means “footless.” Alfred Russell Wallace, who was a cofounder of the theory of evolution with Darwin, took a historic journey through the Spice Islands and what is now eastern Indonesia, and was among the first Europeans to see the bird of paradise. He went to the Aru Islands off the southwestern coast of New Guinea in search of specimens of the birds. While he was there, among other things, he wrote about "one funny old man, who bore a ludicrous resemblance to a friend of mine at home."

In the early 1900s bird of paradise feathers were used as trimmings for high fashion hats. Many Europeans made sizable fortunes smuggling bird of paradise feathers out of New Guinea and the far eastern islands of present-day Indonesia. Some species became endangered and importing the feathers was banned in many places.

Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic, “ Some of the first specimens to reach Europe, offered by New Guineans as gifts to Western kings, arrived in Spain in 1522 aboard one of Magellan's ships. It was rumored that these extraordinary birds came from the heavenly realms, where they soared through paradise without wings and never touched the earth. (The legend may have originated in the fact that wings and feet were often trimmed from trade skins.) The sight of the birds in the wild amazed early travelers: "My gun remained idle in my hand as I was too astonished to shoot," admitted naturalist René Lesson, who visited New Guinea in 1824 and brought back the first eyewitness account. "It was like a meteor whose body, cutting through the air, leaves a long trail of light." Their names bespeak the wonder they inspired: superb bird, magnificent bird, splendid bird, emperor bird. [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, Tim Laman, July 2007 ]

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the “The Malay Archipelago” in the 1860s: ““When the earliest European voyagers reached the Moluccas in search of cloves and nutmegs, which were then rare and precious spices, they were presented with the dried shins of birds so strange and beautiful as to excite the admiration even of those wealth-seeking rovers. The Malay traders gave them the name of "Manuk dewata," or God's birds; and the Portuguese, finding that they had no feet or wings, and not being able to learn anything authentic about then, called them "Passaros de Col," or Birds of the Sun; while the learned Dutchmen, who wrote in Latin, called them "Avis paradiseus," or Paradise Bird. John van Linschoten gives these names in 1598, and tells us that no one has seen these birds alive, for they live in the air, always turning towards the sun, and never lighting on the earth till they die; for they have neither feet nor wings, as, he adds, may be seen by the birds carried to India, and sometimes to Holland, but being very costly they were then rarely seen in Europe. [Source: Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Malay Archipelago,” published in London in 1869]

“More than a hundred years later Mr. William Funnel, who accompanied Dampier, and wrote an account of the voyage, saw specimens at Amboyna, and was told that they came to Banda to eat nutmegs, which intoxicated them and made them fall down senseless, when they were killed by ants. Down to 1760, when Linnaeus named the largest species, Paradisea apoda (the footless Paradise Bird), no perfect specimen had been seen in Europe, and absolutely nothing was known about them. And even now, a hundred years later, most books state that they migrate annually to Ternate, Banda, and Amboyna; whereas the fact is, that they are as completely unknown in those islands in a wild state as they are in England. Linnaeus was also acquainted with a small species, which he named Paradisea regia (the King Bird of Paradise), and since then nine or ten others have been named, all of which were first described from skins preserved by the savages of New Guinea, and generally more or less imperfect. These are now all known in the Malay Archipelago as "Burong coati," or dead birds, indicating that the Malay traders never saw them alive.”

Holland wrote: “For decades Europe's appetite for their plumes fueled hunting and vigorous commerce. At the trade's peak in the early 1900s, some 80,000 skins a year were exported from New Guinea for ladies' hats. Birding groups in England and the United States raised the alarm, and the slaughter abated as a conservation ethic grew. In 1908 the British outlawed commercial hunting in parts of New Guinea under their rule, and the Dutch followed suit in 1931. Today no birds of paradise leave the island legally except for scientific use.”

Male Birds of Paradise

Male birds of paradise are usually the ones that are brightly colored and they show off their plumage when they try to woo females in the mating season. They often do their display dance while hanging upside down from a tree branch. [Source: David Attenborough, “The Life of Birds,” Princeton University Press, 1998 ~~]

Compared to females, David Attenborough wrote in “The Life of Birds,” Mature males “have such varied and extravagant decorations that it is difficult to believe that they could be related to one another. Some have plumes spouting from their flanks, others from their shoulders, their chin or their forehead. One wears a tiara of six quills tipped with a black disc...another is bald with the skin of its scalp a piercing blue. And they flaunt these astonishing adornments in as great a variety of ways as it is possible to imagine." ~~

Mel White wrote in National Geographic, “The natural world offers few spectacles as bizarre as the mating rituals of the males in the family Paradisaeidae. Explosions of golden plumes, comically stylized dancing, tactile wires like robot antennae, iridescent ruffs and puffs, gorgets and fans, and colors that outshine any gem—all this extravagance has but a single purpose. And that, of course, is to attract the attention of as many females as possible. [Source: Mel White, National Geographic, December 2011 |+|]

“Birds of paradise represent an extreme example of Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection: Females choose mates based on certain appealing characteristics, thus increasing the odds that those traits will pass from one generation to the next. In New Guinea an abundance of food and a scarcity of predators have allowed the birds to flourish—and to exaggerate their most attractive traits to a degree that even literal-minded scientists have called absurd.” |+|

Male Bird of Paradise Displays

Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic, “His bend is deep and dignified even as his cape of velvet black feathers rises to expose pale flanks. Springy wires topping his head tap the ground, one, two, one, two. The showman's stage is a patch of earth that he's cleared of forest debris before scattering beakfuls of roots, like petals in a bride's path. His audience: a row of skeptical females fidgeting on an overhanging limb. Their attention is fleeting, so he launches into his routine, toeing forward on skinny legs like a ballerina en pointe. He pauses for dramatic effect, then moves into the jungle boogie. His neck sinks and his head bobs, head wires bouncing on the offbeat. He hops and shakes, wings flapping or tucked in, chin whiskers fluttering. [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, Tim Laman, July 2007 ]

“His performance has the desired effect. The nearest female quivers in invitation, and with a nasal blast the dancer jumps her. Feathered commotion blocks the view, and it's unclear whether the romp is successful. But no matter: Another show will begin soon. Here in the sweaty, vine-tied jungle of New Guinea is nature's most absurd theater, the mating game of the birds of paradise. No other birds on Earth go about the business of breeding quite like these. To dazzle choosy females, males strut in costumes worthy of the stage: cropped capes, shiny breast shields, head ribbons, bonnets, beards, neck wattles, and wiry feathers that curl like handlebar mustaches. Their vivid reds, yellows, and blues blaze against the relentless green of the rain forest. What makes for the sexiest mix of costume and choreography is a mystery, but it seems the more extreme the better.”

After witnessing the greater bird of paradise Wallace wrote: "At the time of its excitement...the wings are raised vertically over the back, the head is bent down and stretched out, and the long plumes are raised up and expanded till they form two magnificent golden fans, striped with deep red at the base, and fading off into the pale brown tint of the finely divided and softly waving points. The whole bird is then overshadowed by them, the crouching body, yellow head, and emerald green throat forming but the foundation and setting to the golden glory which waves above. When seen in this attitude, the Bird of Paradise really deserves its name, and must be ranked as one of the most beautiful and most wonderful of living things.” ~~

Some of male bird of paradise species do their displays in trees. Some do them on the ground. Females watch a number of performances and decide on the male they will mate with. The calls of bird of paradises are simple and harsh. The mating cry of one species was described as: “wank-wank-wank-wok-wok-wok-wok!" Males with most brilliant plumage get up to 90 percent of the females.

Why Birds of Paradise Have Such Unusual Behavior and Feathers

Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic, “With their glam attire and sexual theatrics, birds of paradise also embody a biological mystery: Why would evolution, with its pitiless accounting of cost and benefit, tolerate such ostentation, much less give rise to it? After all, exhibitionism is expensive, in biological terms, and a red flag to predators. [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, Tim Laman, July 2007 ]

"Here in New Guinea it isn't nature tooth and claw, but nature with painted skirt and crowned brow—a bird drag show," says biologist Ed Scholes of New York's Museum of Natural History. "Life here is pretty comfortable for birds of paradise. The island's unique environment has allowed them to go to extremes unheard of elsewhere." Under harsher conditions, he says, "evolution simply wouldn't have come up with these birds."

“Fruit and insects abound all year in the forests of New Guinea, the largest tropical island in the world, and natural threats are few. Linked to Australia until about 8,000 years ago, the 1,500-mile-long (2,400 kilometers) island shared much of its neighbor's fauna. Marsupials and birds were plentiful, but placental mammals were entirely absent, meaning no monkeys and squirrels to compete with birds for food, and no cats to prey on them. The result: an avian paradise that today is home to more than 700 species of birds.

“Freed of other pressures, birds of paradise began to specialize for sexual competition. Traits that made one bird more attractive than another were passed on and enhanced over time. Known as sexual selection, this process "is to birds of paradise what natural selection is to Darwin's finches—the prime mover," says Scholes. "The usual rules of survival aren't as important here as the rules of successful mating."

“The diversity of New Guinea's birdlife also springs from its wealth of habitats, from humid coastal savannas to high-elevation cloud forests. Tangled swamps checker the lowlands, while a spine of rugged mountains, some rising 16,000 feet (5,000 meters), creates a labyrinth of scarp and crag in the remote interior. Shaped by volcanoes, earthquakes, and equatorial rains, the landscape is rife with physical barriers that isolate wildlife populations, allowing them to diverge into new species. (The fractured landscape is also reflected in the diversity of indigenous cultures; more than 750 languages are spoken just in Papua New Guinea, the eastern half of the island.)

Bird of Paradise Species

There are 39 species of birds of paradise. It used to be thought there were 43 but careful studies have found that some communities of birds that look quite different are the same species. Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic, “ Birds of paradise perch on an improbable branch of the avian family tree, the flashy cousins of straitlaced ravens and crows. They began splitting off from their bland kin millions of years ago, evolving into today's eclectic species. Of these, 34 live only on New Guinea and its satellite islands. [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, July 2007 ]

The 39 species of birds-of-paradise include tiny, starling-sized birds and big, crow-sized birds; birds in vivid blues, greens, and reds; birds with head plumes, tail plumes, back plumes, chest plumes, and no plumes; mountain birds and swamp birds; branch dancers, pole dancers, ballerina dancers. [Source: Cornell University - ]

In isolated populations, “Atrapia “bird of paradise males have evolved very different kinds of tails, presumably to suit female’s tastes. In the west and east of New Guinea the tails are long, broad and purple. The males in one community in the interior have purple and white thermometer-shaped tails. Another community has two long white tails.

The black sickle bill is the largest bird of paradise species. It is entirely black except for a fan of long iridescent blue feathers that extend out from ether side of the breast. Because it lives in such remote parts of the mountains its courtship display has only recently been observed, One of the plainer birds of paradise, the trumpet bird, has a windpipe that loops around its chest. As it get older it develops more loops and produces deeper and deeper calls.

The golden-tailed Greater Bird of Paradise is a symbol of the soul and eternal life among the islands where it is found. The bird may have inspired the Chinese phoenix myth which was later introduce to Europe. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York]

Tree-Displaying Bird of Paradise

If you go at the right time, it is not all that difficult to see birds of paradise perform their magical courtship dance because they go to the same trees every year to do it. As well, dozens of males, which are the ones that do the dance, may show up at one tree. Some birds use the same dancing trees generation after generation. The fact they all go to same tree year after year may have had something to do with why they were so easy to hunt in the 1920s at the peak of when their plumes were used for hats. The trade in birds of paradise was also banned in the 1920s to protect them. [Source: David Attenborough, “The Life of Birds,” Princeton University Press, 1998]

David Attenborough wrote in “The Life of Birds”: "perching in his display branch at the middle of his territory, [it] suddenly erects his tail fan of feathers so that they frame the whole of his head. At the same time he spreadshis long black tail and changes from a shape that is recognizably bird-like in a sinister looming rectangle. Then he sways and tilts sideways until he is almost horizontal."

The king bird of paradise is the smallest bird of paradise. It is scarlet with white underparts and two quills projecting beyond his tail each tipped with an iridescent green disc. Attenborough wrote, "He displays by first erecting tufts on his chest and then suddenly toppling down so that he hangs upside down from his branch with his wings open and vibrating. He remains there for a few seconds, then he closes them and with muscular movements of his legs swings his body like a pendulum so that his two tail quills thrash from side to side."

The King of Saxony bird of paradise has such extraordinary feathers that when scientists first saw them (before they saw the bird), they thought they were forgeries. Instead of normal barbs and hooks, the feather contain deep blue platelets that resemble enamel. "His favored display perch is always a thin dangling vine. When he performs, he throws his two extraordinary plumes forward and then, flexing his legs, he kicks repeatedly downwards, like a child trying to make a swing rise higher and higher until the whole vine is bouncing."

Group Tree-Displaying Bird of Paradise

Birds of paradise that do their displays in trees in groups were the first to become known in the West and are still the most famous. The males that do the display have "bunches of gauzy plumes that sprout out from their flanks beneath their wings and extend well beyond their tails." Typically about 16 birds appear about 20 meters feet above the ground. Some clear away leaves so they can do their dance. Observations of these birds of paradise show that almost without fail all the females chose and mate with the same male. [Source: David Attenborough, “The Life of Birds,” Princeton University Press, 1998]

As many as a dozen males will do their displays simultaneously in a tree that has been used for generations. "Their display involves flapping their wings, shrieking and fluffing out their gorgeous plumes and they keep doing it intermittently throughout the day. The arrival of a female, however, sends them into an ecstatic frenzy. They lower their heads and erect their plumes over their backs in a fountain of color. But each bird stays on his own branch of the tree that he uses every day. It is for the females to fly down and join one of them.

Wallace's standardwing is the most westerly of all birds of paradise. Possessing a purple cravat on it breast and two long white feathers that dangles from the middle of each wing, it lives on the island of Halmahera and is so rare that its display was observed in the 19th century and was not seen again until fairly recently. The display is done by large numbers of males on a single tree.

Describing them, David Attenborough wrote in “The Life of Birds,” "There were between thirty and forty of them. They displayed to one another by erecting their cravat horizontally so that it glinted, purple changing to green, and twirling the white standard in their wings. Those on their periphery of this great assembly called attention to themselves by display fights, shooting vertically in the air on rapidly beating wings, floating for a few seconds at the top of their jump with wings rigidly outstretched and then shrinking down again to resume their quarrelsome displays with other males." After all this, females seem to prefer copulating with a single bird on a single branch.”

Ground-Displaying Bird of Paradise

Bird of paradise males that do their display rituals on the ground first clear away a stage area on the forest floor by picking up leaves and clipping branches of bushes that are in the way. If you come across one of these stages and want to see if the bird is still around just throw a twig in it. If the bird is there he will come out and, in an agitated manner, remove it. [Source: David Attenborough,“The Life of Birds,” Princeton University Press, 1998]

The Wilson's bird of paradise has a blue bald head, a yellow patch on the back of its neck and an iridescent green beast. "When he displays, he clings to the vertical stem of a sprig and distends his breast feathers into a shining green shield fanned out at right angles to his body."

The parotia bird of paradise is rather subdued looking. It is entirely black except for a white patch on it head. What it lacks in appearance it makes up for with its show. After making sure his stage is clear "he makes a series of scuttling runs across the stage, letting out shrill calls. This announces he is about to give a performance and usually several drab females will arrive within a few minutes.

Attenborough wrote: "And now he begins his dance. He lifts himself high and holds out his long body feathers so that, with his wings, they form a circular skirt like a crinoline. He erects his breast feathers so that they catch the light and you can see that although they had seemed plain black, they are in fact iridescent and form a glinting shield, part greenish-blue part gold. Facing his audience, he waltzes from side to side. Abruptly, he stops and for a moment is rigid. Then, standing on the spot with feet astride, he begins to twirl his head so that the pennants of his tiara are lost in a blur. Suddenly he leaps into the air, lands onto the back of one of the females in the audience and mates with her."

Birds of Paradis Country

Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic, “Much of New Guinea remains wild as ever, its fauna still not fully explored. In December 2005 scientists surveying the Foja Mountains in Indonesia's Papua Province, the western half of the island, came upon the Berlepsch's parotia, a bird of paradise with half a dozen springy feathers on its head. This legendary species was previously known only from a few partial specimens collected more than a century ago. [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, Tim Laman, July 2007 ]

“Farther east, in Papua New Guinea's Crater Mountain reserve, the forest grows dense to the mountain's summit, forming a canopy that blocks all but the thinnest rays of sun. Birdsong rings out in the gloom, a hoot here, a trill there, a melodious whistle, a harmonic tone as when a finger circles the rim of a glass. Drenched by nearly 300 inches (760 centimeters) of rain a year, this highland terrain is forever dripping. The forest floor, composed of layer on layer of organic material, is a wet sponge underfoot. And always, from somewhere below, comes the muted rush of a cold river spiriting away last night's rain.

“Trails are rutted and mud-slick, swallowing boots and bruising the ankles of a first-time visitor. But the local women and children, who for a few kina will carry heavy gear and even lead you by the hand, tread lightly on bare feet. Pull out pictures of what you're looking for, and the men will lead you on long, clambering hikes, their machetes swinging to clear a path to where the birds of paradise hold court.

“Even with local guides, finding the elusive birds can be daunting. Their calls, unique to each species, tantalize you. Squawks, mews, and nasal bursts reveal Carola's parotia. A ghostly aria? That's the buff-tailed sicklebill. The superb bird of paradise seems to throw its metallic voice, sending you off course. At higher elevations the King of Saxony bird crackles like radio static. And within earshot, the rat-a-tat-tat of the brown sicklebill could be machine-gun fire.

“At last a glimpse of a forest dance floor reveals a weird, obsessive performance. The magnificent bird of paradise, with its baby blue cap and filigree tail, snaps into the same crisp displays again and again, puffing up its breast to show off its glossy chest plate. The parotia spends hours cleaning its court and practicing its moves, often watched by younger males eager to learn the ropes. The buff-tailed sicklebill settles on the same perch at the same time every evening, popping open its pectoral fan for any watching female—or no audience at all.”

Photographing All 39 Bird of Paradise Species

Mel White wrote in National Geographic, “Nine years ago, two men began an extraordinary quest: to be the first to find and document all 39 species of the legendary birds of paradise. After 18 expeditions and over 39,000 photographs, their vision is complete. In 2003 Cornell ornithologist Edwin Scholes and Tim Laman, a biologist and photographer, began planning a quest to document every species of the birds of paradise. It took them eight years and 18 expeditions to some of the planet’s most exotic landscapes. With still images, videos, and sound recordings—not to mention old-fashioned notebooks and pens—Scholes and Laman captured courtship displays and behavior previously unknown to science. [Source: Mel White, National Geographic, December 2011]

In the 21st century Laman and Scholes set a goal of documenting the birds in a way that people have never seen them before: from the females’ perspective. On Batanta Island, west of New Guinea, Laman climbed 165 feet into the rain forest canopy to photograph the mating ritual of the red bird of paradise. On the Huon Peninsula, 1,200 miles east, he mounted a camera pointing down from a tree branch to get a female’s view of the colorful breast feathers and ballerina-like “tutu” of a male Wahnes’s parotia.

Though both men had experience in the tropics before they began their endeavor, neither could have anticipated the adventure that awaited. They endured harrowing helicopter rides and long treks along flooded trails, and twice found themselves adrift at sea when boat engines failed. In exchange for moments of thrilling discovery, such as the first view of the Arfak astrapia’s upside-down courtship posture, they logged a total of over 2,000 hours simply sitting in blinds, waiting and watching.

The sight of a glossy blue-black Jobi manucode marked the quest’s end in June 2011. Scholes and Laman hope their work will encourage conservation in New Guinea, where the birds’ habitat has so far been protected by its sheer remoteness. As Wallace wrote: “Nature seems to have taken every precaution that these, her choicest treasures, may not lose value by being too easily obtained.”

Threats to Birds of Paradise and Conservation

Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic, “More serious threats loom. Though wholesale massacre of birds for the plume trade is long stanched, a black market still thrives. Vast palm oil plantations are swallowing up thousands of acres of bird of paradise habitat, as is large-scale industrial logging. Oil prospecting and mining are encroaching on New Guinea's wildest forests. Meanwhile, human populations continue to grow. Land ownership is fragmented among local clans, and their leaders disagree about which lands should be protected. [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic, Tim Laman, July 2007 ]

“David Mitchell of Conservation International studies the Goldie's bird of paradise, a rare species with a fiery fan of plumes and a strident call that lives only on two islands off the southeastern tip of New Guinea. By enlisting local villagers to record where the birds display and what they eat, Mitchell hopes not only to glean data but also to encourage protection of the birds' habitat. The strategy seems to be working. "I had come to cut down some trees and plant yam vines," says Ambrose Joseph, one of Mitchell's recruits. "Then I saw the birds land there, so I left the trees alone."

Mitchell is encouraged, but not sanguine. "Just because some elders become interested in forest protection won't stop others from turning the next patch into a garden," he says. "You have to keep coming back, keep telling the story and getting the next generation committed, or you lose momentum."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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