Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the “The Malay Archipelago” in the 1860s: “As many of my journeys were made with the express object of obtaining specimens of the Birds of Paradise, and learning something of their habits and distribution; and being (as far as I am aware) the only Englishman who has seen these wonderful birds in their native forests, and obtained specimens of many of them, I propose to give here, in a connected form, the result of my observations and inquiries. [Source: Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Malay Archipelago,” published in London in 1869, Project Gutenberg or Wallace Online pdf ]

“The Paradiseidae are a group of moderate-sized birds, allied in their structure and habits to crows, starlings, and to the Australian honeysuckers; but they are characterised by extraordinary developments of plumage, which are unequalled in any other family of birds. In several species large tufts of delicate bright-coloured feathers spring from each side of the body beneath the wings, forming trains, or fans, or shields; and the middle feathers of the tail are often elongated into wires, twisted into fantastic shapes, or adorned with the most brilliant metallic tints. In another set of species these accessory plumes spring from the head, the back, or the shoulders; while the intensity of colour and of metallic lustre displayed by their plumage, is not to be equalled by any other birds, except, perhaps, the humming-birds, and is not surpassed even by these.

“They have been usually classified under two distinct families, Paradiseidae and Epimachidae, the latter characterised by long and slender beaks, and supposed to be allied to the Hoopoes; but the two groups are so closely allied in every essential point of structure and habits, that I shall consider them as forming subdivisions of one family. I will now give a short description of each of the known species, and then add some general remarks on their natural history.”

[In Wallace’s time there were 18 known bird of paradise species] “I will now give a list of all the Birds of Paradise yet known, with the places they are believed to inhabit: 1) Paradisea apoda (The Great Paradise Bird). Aru Islands; 2) Paradisea papuana (The Lesser Paradise Bird). New Guinea. Mysol, Jobie; 3) Paradisea rubra (The Red Paradise Bird). Waigiou; 4) Cicinnurus regius (The King Paradise Bird). New Guinea, Aru Islands, Mysol, Salwatty; 5) Diphyllodes speciosa (The Magnificent). New Guinea, Mysol, Salwatty; 6) Diphyllodes wilsoni (The Red Magnificent). Waigiou; 7) Lophorina atra (The Superb). New Guinea; 8) Parotia sexpennis (The Golden Paradise Bird). New Guinea; 9) Semioptera wallacei (The Standard Wing). Batchian, Gilolo; 10) Epimachus magnus (The Long-tailed Paradise Bird). New Guinea.

“11) Seleucides albs (The Twelve-wired Paradise Bird).New Guinea, Salwatty; 12) Ptiloris magnifica (The Scale-breasted Paradise Bird). New Guinea; 13) Ptiloris alberti (Prince Albert's Paradise Bird). North Australia; 14) Ptiloris Paradisea (The Rifle Bird). East Australia; 15) Ptiloris victoriae (The Victorian Rifle Bird). North-East Australia; 16) Astrapia nigra (The Paradise Pie). New Guinea; 17) Paradigalla carunculata (The Carunculated Paradise Pie). New Guinea; 18) Sericulus aureus (The Paradise Oriole). New Guinea, Salwatty.

“We see, therefore, that of the eighteen species which seem to deserve a place among the Birds of Paradise, eleven are known to inhabit the great island of New Guinea, eight of which are entirely confined to it and the hardly separated island of Salwatty. But if we consider those islands which are now united to New Guinea by a shallow sea to really form a part of it, we shall find that fourteen of the Paradise Birds belong to that country, while three inhabit the northern and eastern parts of Australia, and one the Moluccas. All the more extraordinary and magnificent species are, however, entirely confined to the Papuan region.

Alfred Russell Wallace and the Wallace Line

Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) developed a theory of evolution the same time as Darwin but failed to win the same recognition as Darwin. He made a historic journey through Malaysia, Borneo and Spice Islands about 20 years after Darwin made his voyage in the Beagle. Wallace was a much more colorful character than Darwin. He was one of nine children in a poor family and dropped out of school at fourteen. His interest in the natural sciences blossomed during beetle-hunting expeditions with a close friend.

Wallace also came up with the idea of the Wallace Line, an invisible biological barrier described by and named after him. Running along the water between the Indonesia islands of Bali and Lombok and between Borneo and Sulawesi, it separates the species found in Australia, New Guinea and the eastern islands of Indonesia from those found in western Indonesia, the Philippines and the Southeast Asia. Because of the Wallace Line Asian animals such as elephants, orangutans and tigers never ventured further east than Bali, and Australian animals such as kangaroos, emus, cassowaries, wallabies and cockatoos never made it to Asia. Animals from both continents are found in some parts of Indonesia.

Wallace came up with the idea of a dividing line for animals after conducting surveys in the 1850s in Borneo and Sulawesi, where he was struck by how different the wildlife was on the two islands despite their close proximity to one another and their similar climates and geography. His letters to Darwin on the subject prompted Darwin to take a look as his own travels and make similar observations on some of the places he visited. In 1859 Wallace expanded on his observations and drew a line between Borneo and Bali to the west and Sulawesi and Lombok to the east and theorized that areas to the west — including the islands of Indonesia the Philippines — were part of a great Asian landmass and areas to east were connected to a greater Australian landmass, with Sulawesi containing elements of both the Asian and Australian landmass.

Studies of geology, ice ages and rising and falling sea levels conducted after Wallace’s death — that among other things that Indonesia, the Philippines and the Southeast Asia were all connected by land bridges when sea levels dropped during ice ages — proved that his theories were largely correct. Further studies on the matter placed the furthest extent of Australian type fauna further east between the Moluccas and Timor.

Alfred Russel Wallace on The Pursuit of Birds of Paradise in the 1860s

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the “The Malay Archipelago”: “Although I devoted so much time to a search after these wonderful birds, I only succeeded myself in obtaining five species during a residence of many months in the Aru Islands, New Guinea, and Waigiou. Mr. Allen's voyage to Mysol did not procure a single additional species, but we both heard of a place called Sorong, on the mainland of New Guinea, near Salwatty, where we were told that all the kinds we desired could be obtained. We therefore determined that he should visit this place, and endeavour to penetrate into the interior among the natives, who actually shoot and skin the Birds of Paradise. He went in the small prau I had fitted up at Goram, and through the kind assistance of the Dutch Resident at Ternate, a lieutenant and two soldiers were sent by the Sultan of Tidore to accompany and protect him, and to assist him in getting men and in visiting the interior. [Source: Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Malay Archipelago,” published in London in 1869 ]

“Notwithstanding these precautions, Mr. Allen met with difficulties in this voyage which we had neither of us encountered before. To understand these, it is necessary to consider that the Birds of Paradise are an article of commerce, and are the monopoly of the chiefs of the coast villages, who obtain them at a low rate from the mountaineers, and sell them to the Bugis traders. A portion is also paid every year as tribute to the Sultan of Tidore. The natives are therefore very jealous of a stranger, especially a European, interfering in their trade, and above all of going into the interior to deal with the mountaineers themselves. They of course think he will raise the prices in the interior, and lessen the supply on the coast, greatly to their disadvantage; they also think their tribute will be raised if a European takes back a quantity of the rare sorts; and they have besides a vague and very natural dread of some ulterior object in a white man's coming at so much trouble and expense to their country only to get Birds of Paradise, of which they know he can buy plenty (of the common yellow ones which alone they value) at Ternate, Macassar, or Singapore.

“It thus happened that when Mr. Allen arrived at Sorong, and explained his intention of going to seek Birds of Paradise in the interior, innumerable objections were raised. He was told it was three or four days' journey over swamps and mountains; that the mountaineers were savages and cannibals, who would certainly kill him; and, lastly, that not a man in the village could be found who dare go with him. After some days spent in these discussions, as he still persisted in making the attempt, and showed them his authority from the Sultan of Tidore to go where he pleased and receive every assistance, they at length provided him with a boat to go the first part of the journey up a river; at the same time, however, they sent private orders to the interior villages to refuse to sell any provisions, so as to compel him to return. On arriving at the village where they were to leave the river and strike inland, the coast people returned, leaving Mr. Allen to get on as he could. Here he called on the Tidore lieutenant to assist him, and procure men as guides and to carry his baggage to the villages of the mountaineers. This, however, was not so easily done. A quarrel took place, and the natives, refusing to obey the imperious orders of the lieutenant, got out their knives and spears to attack him and his soldiers; and Mr. Allen himself was obliged to interfere to protect those who had come to guard him. The respect due to a white man and the timely distribution of a few presents prevailed; and, on showing the knives, hatchets, and beads he was willing to give to those who accompanied him, peace was restored, and the next day, travelling over a frightfully rugged country, they reached the villages of the mountaineers. Here Mr. Allen remained a month without any interpreter through whom he could understand a word or communicate a want. However, by signs and presents and a pretty liberal barter, he got on very well, some of them accompanying him every day in the forest to shoot, and receiving a small present when he was successful.

“In the grand matter of the Paradise Birds, however, little was done. Only one additional species was found, the Seleucides alba, of which he had already obtained a specimen in Salwatty; but he learnt that the other kinds' of which he showed them drawings, were found two or three days' journey farther in the interior. When I sent my men from Dorey to Amberbaki, they heard exactly the same story—that the rarer sorts were only found several days' journey in the interior, among rugged mountains, and that the skins were prepared by savage tribes who had never even been seen by any of the coast people.

“It seems as if Nature had taken precautions that these her choicest treasures should not be made too common, and thus be undervalued. This northern coast of New Guinea is exposed to the full swell of the Pacific Ocean, and is rugged and harbourless. The country is all rocky and mountainous, covered everywhere with dense forests, offering in its swamps and precipices and serrated ridges an almost impassable barrier to the unknown interior; and the people are dangerous savages, in the very lowest stage of barbarism. In such a country, and among such a people, are found these wonderful productions of Nature, the Birds of Paradise, whose exquisite beauty of form and colour and strange developments of plumage are calculated to excite the wonder and admiration of the most civilized and the most intellectual of mankind, and to furnish inexhaustible materials for study to the naturalist, and for speculation to the philosopher.

“Five voyages to different parts of the district they inhabit, each occupying in its preparation and execution the larger part of a year, produced me only five species out of the fourteen known to exist in the New Guinea district. The kinds obtained are those that inhabit the coasts of New Guinea and its islands, the remainder seeming to be strictly confined to the central mountain-ranges of the northern peninsula; and our researches at Dorey and Amberbaki, near one end of this peninsula, and at Salwatty and Sorong, near the other, enable me to decide with some certainty on the native country of these rare and lovely birds, good specimens of which have never yet been seen in Europe.

“It must be considered as somewhat extraordinary that, during five years' residence and travel in Celebes, the Moluccas, and New Guinea, I should never have been able to purchase skins of half the species which Lesson, forty years ago, obtained during a few weeks in the same countries. I believe that all, except the common species of commerce, are now much more difficult to obtain than they were even twenty years ago; and I impute it principally to their having been sought after by the Dutch officials through the Sultan of Tidore. The chiefs of the annual expeditions to collect tribute have had orders to get all the rare sorts of Paradise Birds; and as they pay little or nothing for them (it being sufficient to say they are for the Sultan), the head men of the coast villages would for the future refuse to purchase them from the mountaineers, and confine themselves instead to the commoner species, which are less sought after by amateurs, but are a more profitable merchandise. The same causes frequently lead the inhabitants of uncivilized countries to conceal minerals or other natural products with which they may become acquainted, from the fear of being obliged to pay increased tribute, or of bringing upon themselves a new and oppressive labour.

Alfred Russel Wallace on Different Species of Bird of Paradise

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the “The Malay Archipelago”: “The Paradisea apoda, as far as we have any certain knowledge, is confined to the mainland of the Aru Islands, never being found in the smaller islands which surround the central mass. It is certainly not found in any of the parts of New Guinea visited by the Malay and Bugis traders, nor in any of the other islands where Birds of Paradise are obtained. But this is by no means conclusive evidence, for it is only in certain localities that the natives prepare skins, and in other places the same birds may be abundant without ever becoming known. It is therefore quite possible that this species may inhabit the great southern mass of New Guinea, from which Aru has been separated; while its near ally, which I shall next describe, is confined to the north-western peninsula. [Source: Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Malay Archipelago,” published in London in 1869 ]

“The Golden, or Six-shafted, Paradise Bird, is another rare species, first figured by Buffon, and never yet obtained in perfect condition. It was named by Boddaert, Paradisea sexpennis, and forms the genus Parotia of Viellot. This wonderful bird is about the size of the female Paradisea rubra. The plumage appear, at first sight black, but it glows in certain light with bronze and deep purple. The throat and breast are scaled with broad flat feathers of an intense golden hue, changing to green and blue tints in certain lights. On the back of the head is a broad recurved band of feathers, whose brilliancy is indescribable, resembling the sheen of emerald and topaz rather than any organic substance. Over the forehead is a large patch of pure white feathers, which shine like satin; and from the sides of the head spring the six wonderful feathers from which the bird receives its name. These are slender wires, six inches long, with a small oval web at the extremity. In addition to these ornaments, there is also an immense tuft of soft feathers on each side of the breast, which when elevated must entirely hide the wings, and give the bird au appearance of being double its real bulk. The bill is black, short, and rather compressed, with the feathers advancing over the nostrils, as in Cicinnurus regius. This singular and brilliant bird inhabits the same region as the Superb Bird of Paradise, and nothing whatever is known about it but what we can derive from an examination of the skins preserved by the natives of New Guinea.

“The Seleucides alba is found in the island of Salwatty, and in the north-western parts of New Guinea, where it frequents flowering trees, especially sago-palms and pandani, sucking the flowers, round and beneath which its unusually large and powerful feet enable it to cling. Its motions are very rapid. It seldom rests more than a few moments on one tree, after which it flies straight off, and with great swiftness, to another. It has a loud shrill cry, to be heard a long way, consisting of "Cah, cah," repeated five or six times in a descending scale, and at the last note it generally flies away. The males are quite solitary in their habits, although, perhaps, they assemble at pertain times like the true Paradise Birds. All the specimens shot and opened by my assistant Mr. Allen, who obtained this fine bird during his last voyage to New Guinea, had nothing in their stomachs but a brown sweet liquid, probably the nectar of the flowers on which they had been feeding. They certainly, however, eat both fruit and insects, for a specimen which I saw alive on board a Dutch steamer ate cockroaches and papaya fruit voraciously. This bird had the curious habit of resting at noon with the bill pointing vertically upwards. It died on the passage to Batavia, and I secured the body and formed a skeleton, which shows indisputably that it is really a Bird of Paradise. The tongue is very long and extensible, but flat and little fibrous at the end, exactly like the true Paradiseas.

“In the island of Salwatty, the natives search in the forests till they find the sleeping place of this bird, which they know by seeing its dung upon the ground. It is generally in a low bushy tree. At night they climb up the trap, and either shoot the birds with blunt arrows, or even catch them alive with a cloth. In New Guinea they are caught by placing snares on the trees frequented by them, in the same way as the Red Paradise birds are caught in Waigiou, and which has already been described.

“There are three other New Guinea birds which are by some authors classed with the Birds of Paradise, and which, being almost equally remarkable for splendid plumage, deserve to be noticed here. The first is the Paradise pie (Astrapia nigra of Lesson), a bird of the size of Paradises rubra, but with a very long tail, glossed above with intense violet. The back is bronzy black, the lower parts green, the throat and neck bordered with loose broad feathers of an intense coppery hue, while on the top of the head and neck they are glittering emerald green, All the plumage round the head is lengthened and erectile, and when spread out by the living bird must lave an effect hardly surpassed by any of the true Paradise birds. The bill is black and the feet yellow. The Astrapia seems to me to be somewhat intermediate between the Paradiseidae and Epimachidae. There is an allied species, having a bare carunculated head, which has been called Paradigalla carunculata. It is believed to inhabit, with the preceding, the mountainous, interior of New Guinea, but is exceedingly rare, the only known specimen being in the Philadelphia Museum.

“The Paradise Oriole is another beautiful bird, which is now sometimes classed with the Birds of Paradise. It has been named Paradises aurea and Oriolus aureus by the old naturalists, and is now generally placed in the same genus as the Regent Bird of Australia (Sericulus chrysocephalus). But the form of the bill and the character of the plumage seem to me to be so different that it will have to form a distinct genus. This bird is almost entirely yellow, with the exception of the throat, the tail, and part of the wings and back, which are black; but it is chiefly characterised by a quantity of long feathers of an intense glossy orange colour, which cover its neck down to the middle of the back, almost like the hackles of a game-cock. “This beautiful bird inhabits the mainland of New Guinea, and is also found in Salwatty, but is so rare that I was only able to obtain one imperfect native skin, and nothing whatever is known of its habits.

Alfred Russel Wallace on the Great Bird of Paradise

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the “The Malay Archipelago”: “The Great Bird of Paradise (Paradisea apoda of Linnaeus) is the largest species known, being generally seventeen or eighteen inches from the beak to the tip of the tail. The body, wings, and tail are of a rich coffee-brown, which deepens on the breast to a blackish-violet or purple-brown. The whole top of the head and neck is of an exceedingly delicate straw-yellow, the feathers being short and close set, so as to resemble plush or velvet; the lower part of the throat up to the eye clothed with scaly feathers of an emerald, green colour, and with a rich metallic gloss, and velvety plumes of a still deeper green extend in a band across the forehead and chin as far as the eye, which is bright yellow. The beak is pale lead blue; and the feet, which are rather large and very strong and well formed, are of a pale ashy-pink. The two middle feathers of the tail have no webs, except a very small one at the base and at the extreme tip, forming wire-like cirrhi, which spread out in an elegant double curve, and vary from twenty-four to thirty-four inches long. From each side of the body, beneath the wings, springs a dense tuft of long and delicate plumes, sometimes two feet in length, of the most intense golden-orange colour and very glossy, but changing towards the tips into a pale brown. This tuft of plumage cam be elevated and spread out at pleasure, so as almost to conceal the body of the bird. [Source: Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Malay Archipelago,” published in London in 1869 ]

“These splendid ornaments are entirely confined to the male sex, while the female is really a very plain and ordinary-looking bird of a uniform coffee-brown colour which never changes, neither does she possess the long tail wires, nor a single yellow or green feather about the dead. The young males of the first year exactly resemble the females, so that they can only be distinguished by dissection. The first change is the acquisition of the yellow and green colour on the head and throat, and at the same time the two middle tail feathers grow a few inches longer than the rest, but remain webbed on both sides. At a later period these feathers are replaced by the long bare shafts of the full length, as in the adult bird; but there is still no sign of the magnificent orange side-plumes, which later still complete the attire of the perfect male. To effect these changes there must be at least three successive moultings; and as the birds were found by me in all the stages about the same time, it is probable that they moult only once a year, and that the full plumage is not acquired till the bird is four years old. It was long thought that the fine train of feathers was assumed for a short time only at the breeding season, but my own experience, as well as the observation of birds of an allied species which I brought home with me, and which lived two years in this country, show that the complete plumage is retained during the whole year, except during a short period of moulting as with most other birds.

“The Great Bird of Paradise is very active and vigorous and seems to be in constant motion all day long. It is very abundant, small flocks of females and young male being constantly met with; and though the full-plumaged birds are less plentiful, their loud cries, which are heard daily, show that they also are very numerous. Their note is, "Wawk-wawk-wawk-Wok-wok-wok," and is so loud and shrill as to be heard a great distance, and to form the most prominent and characteristic animal sound in the Aru Islands. The mode of nidification is unknown; but the natives told me that the nest was formed of leaves placed on an ant's nest, or on some projecting limb of a very lofty tree, and they believe that it contains only one young bird. The egg is quite unknown, and the natives declared they had never seen it; and a very high reward offered for one by a Dutch official did not meet with success. They moult about January or February, and in May, when they are in full plumage, the males assemble early in the morning to exhibit themselves in the singular manner already described at p. 252. This habit enables the natives to obtain specimens with comparative ease. As soon as they find that the birds have fled upon a tree on which to assemble, they build a little shelter of palm leaves in a convenient place among the branches, and the hunter ensconces himself in it before daylight, armed with his bow and a number of arrows terminating in a round knob. A boy waits at the foot of the tree, and when the birds come at sunrise, and a sufficient number have assembled, and have begun to dance, the hunter shoots with his blunt arrow so strongly as to stun the bird, which drops down, and is secured and killed by the boy without its plumage being injured by a drop of blood. The rest take no notice, and fall one after another till some of them take the alarm.

The native mode of preserving them is to cut off the wings and feet, and then skin the body up to the beak, taking out the skull. A stout stick is then run up through the specimen coming out at the mouth. Round this some leaves are stuffed, and the whole is wrapped up in a palm spathe and dried in the smoky hut. By this plan the head, which is really large, is shrunk up almost to nothing, the body is much reduced and shortened, and the greatest prominence is given to the flowing plumage. Some of these native skins are very clean, and often have wings and feet left on; others are dreadfully stained with smoke, and all hive a most erroneous idea of the proportions of the living bird.

Alfred Russel Wallace on the Lesser Bird of Paradise

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the “The Malay Archipelago”: “The Lesser Bird of Paradise (Paradisea papuana of Bechstein), "Le petit Emeraude" of French authors, is a much smaller bird than the preceding, although very similar to it. It differs in its lighter brown colour, not becoming darker or purpled on the breast; in the extension of the yellow colour all over the upper part of the back and on the wing coverts; in the lighter yellow of the side plumes, which have only a tinge of orange, and at the tips are nearly pure white; and in the comparative shortness of the tail cirrhi. The female differs remarkably front the same sex in Paradisea apoda, by being entirely white on the under surface of the body, and is thus a much handsomer bird. The young males are similarly coloured, and as they grow older they change to brown, and go through the same stages in acquiring the perfect plumage as has already been described in the allied species. It is this bird which is most commonly used in ladies' head-dresses in this country, and also forms an important article of commerce in the East. [Source: Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Malay Archipelago,” published in London in 1869 ]

“The Paradisea papuana has a comparatively wide range, being the common species on the mainland of New Guinea, as well as on the islands of Mysol, Salwatty, Jobie, Biak and Sook. On the south coast of New Guinea, the Dutch naturalist, Muller, found it at the Oetanata river in longitude 136̊ E. I obtained it myself at Dorey; and the captain of the Dutch steamer Etna informed me that he had seen the feathers among the natives of Humboldt Bay, in 141̊ E. longitude. It is very probable, therefore, that it ranges over the whole of the mainland of New Guinea.

“The true Paradise Birds are omnivorous, feeding on fruits and insects—of the former preferring the small figs; of the latter, grasshoppers, locusts, and phasmas, as well as cockroaches and caterpillars. When I returned home, in 1862, I was so fortunate as to find two adult males of this species in Singapore; and as they seemed healthy, and fed voraciously on rice, bananas, and cockroaches, I determined on giving the very high price asked for them—£100.—and to bring them to England by the overland route under my own care. On my way home I stayed a week at Bombay, to break the journey, and to lay in a fresh stock of bananas for my birds. I had great difficulty, however, in supplying them with insect food, for in the Peninsular and Oriental steamers cockroaches were scarce, and it was only by setting traps in the store-rooms, and by hunting an hour every night in the forecastle, that I could secure a few dozen of these creatures,—scarcely enough for a single meal. At Malta, where I stayed a fortnight, I got plenty of cockroaches from a bake-house, and when I left, took with me several biscuit-tins' full, as provision for the voyage home. We came through the Mediterranean in March, with a very cold wind; and the only place on board the mail-steamer where their large cage could be accommodated was exposed to a strong current of air down a hatchway which stood open day and night, yet the birds never seemed to feel the cold. During the night journey from Marseilles to Paris it was a sharp frost; yet they arrived in London in perfect health, and lived in the Zoological Gardens for one, and two years, often displaying their beautiful plumes to the admiration of the spectators. It is evident, therefore, that the Paradise Birds are very hardy, and require air and exercise rather than heat; and I feel sure that if a good sized conservators' could be devoted to them, or if they could be turned loose in the tropical department of the Crystal Palace or the Great Palm House at Kew, they would live in this country for many years.”

Alfred Russel Wallace on the Red Bird of Paradise

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the “The Malay Archipelago”: “The Red Bird of Paradise (Paradisea rubra of Viellot), though allied to the two birds already described, is much more distinct from them than they are from each other. It is about the same size as Paradisea papuana (13 to 14 inches long), but differs from it in many particulars. The side plumes, instead of being yellow, are rich crimson, and only extend about three or four inches beyond the end of the tail; they are somewhat rigid, and the ends are curved downwards and inwards, and are tipped with white. The two middle tail feathers, instead of being simply elongated and deprived of their webs, are transformed into stiff black ribands, a quarter of an inch wide, but curved like a split quill, and resembling thin half cylinders of horn or whalebone. When a dead bird is laid on its back, it is seen that these ribands take a curve or set, which brings them round so as to meet in a double circle on the neck of the bird; but when they hang downwards, during life, they assume a spiral twist, and form an exceedingly graceful double curve. They are about twenty-two inches long, and always attract attention as the most conspicuous and extraordinary feature of the species. The rich metallic green colour of the throat extends over the front half of the head to behind the eyes, and on the forehead forms a little double crest of scaly feathers, which adds much to the vivacity of the bird's aspect. The bill is gamboge yellow, and the iris blackish olive. [Source: Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Malay Archipelago,” published in London in 1869 ]

“The female of this species is of a tolerably uniform coffee-brown colour, but has a blackish head, and the nape neck, and shoulders yellow, indicating the position of the brighter colours of the male. The changes of plumage follow the same order of succession as in the other species, the bright colours of the head and neck being first developed, then the lengthened filaments of the tail, and last of all, the red side plumes. I obtained a series of specimens, illustrating the manner in which the extraordinary black tail ribands are developed, which is very remarkable. They first appear as two ordinary feathers, rather shorter than the rest of the tail; the second stage would no doubt be that shown in a specimen of Paradisea apoda, in which the feathers are moderately lengthened, and with the web narrowed in the middle; the third stage is shown by a specimen which has part of the midrib bare, and terminated by a spatulate web; in another the bare midrib is a little dilated and semi-cylindrical, and the terminal web very small; in a fifth, the perfect black horny riband is formed, but it bears at its extremity a brown spatulate web, while in another a portion of the black riband itself bears, for a portion of its length, a narrow brown web. It is only after these changes are fully completed that the red side plumes begin to appear.

“The successive stages of development of the colours and plumage of the Birds of Paradise are very interesting, from the striking manner in which they accord with the theory of their having been produced by the simple action of variation, and the cumulative power of selection by the females, of those male birds which were more than usually ornamental. Variations of colour are of all others the most frequent and the most striking, and are most easily modified and accumulated by man's selection of them. We should expect, therefore, that the sexual differences of colour would be those most early accumulated and fixed, and would therefore appear soonest in the young birds; and this is exactly what occurs in the Paradise Birds. Of all variations in the form of birds' feathers, none are so frequent as those in the head and tail. These occur more, or less in every family of birds, and are easily produced in many domesticated varieties, while unusual developments of the feathers of the body are rare in the whole class of birds, and have seldom or never occurred in domesticated species. In accordance with these facts, we find the scale-formed plumes of the throat, the crests of the head, and the long cirrhi of the tail, all fully developed before the plumes which spring from the side of the body begin to mane their appearance. If, on the other hand, the male Paradise Birds have not acquired their distinctive plumage by successive variations, but have been as they are mow from the moment they first appeared upon the earth, this succession becomes at the least unintelligible to us, for we can see no reason why the changes should not take place simultaneously, or in a reverse order to that in which they actually occur.

“ The Red Bird of Paradise offers a remarkable case of restricted range, being entirely confined to the small island of Waigiou, off the north-west extremity of New Guinea, where it replaces the allied species found in the other islands. The three birds [Red Bird of Paradise, Great Bird of Paradise and Lesser Bird of Paradise] just described form a well-marked group, agreeing in every point of general structure, in their comparatively large size, the brown colour of their bodies, wings, and tail, and in the peculiar character of the ornamental plumage which distinguishes the male bird. The group ranges nearly over the whole area inhabited by the family of the Paradiseidae, but each of the species has its own limited region, and is never found in the same district with either of its close allies. To these three birds properly belongs the generic title Paradisea, or true Paradise Bird.

Alfred Russel Wallace on the Ding Bird of Paradise

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the “The Malay Archipelago”: “The next species is the Paradisea regia of Linnaeus, or Ding Bird of Paradise, which differs so much from the three preceding species as to deserve a distinct generic name, and it has accordingly been called Cicinnurus regius. By the Malays it is called "Burong rajah," or King Bird, and by the natives of the Aru Islands "Goby-goby." [Source: Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Malay Archipelago,” published in London in 1869 ]

“This lovely little bird is only about six and a half inches long, partly owing to the very short tail, which does not surpass the somewhat square wings. The head, throat, and entire upper surface are of the richest glossy crimson red, shading to orange-crimson on the forehead, where the feathers extend beyond the nostrils more than half-way down the beak. The plumage is excessively brilliant, shining in certain lights with a metallic or glassy lustre. The breast and belly are pure silky white, between which colour and the red of the throat there is a broad band of rich metallic green, and there is a small spot of the same colour close above each eye. From each side of the body beneath the wing, springs a tuft of broad delicate feathers about an inch and a half long, of an ashy colour, but tipped with a broad band of emerald green, bordered within by a narrow line of buff: These plumes are concealed beneath the wing, but when the bird pleases, can be raised and spread out so as to form an elegant semicircular fan on each shoulder. But another ornament still more extraordinary, and if possible more beautiful, adorns this little bird. The two middle tail feathers are modified into very slender wirelike shafts, nearly six inches long, each of which bears at the extremity, on the inner side only, a web of an emerald green colour, which is coiled up into a perfect spiral disc, and produces a most singular and charming effect. The bill is orange yellow, and the feet and legs of a fine cobalt blue.

“The female of this little gem is such a plainly coloured bird, that it can at first sight hardly be believed to belong to the same species. The upper surface is of a dull earthy brown, a slight tinge of orange red appearing only on the margins of the quills. Beneath, it is of a paler yellowish brown, scaled and banded with narrow dusky markings. The young males are exactly like the female, and they no doubt undergo a series of changes as singular as those of Paradisea rubra; but, unfortunately, I was unable to obtain illustrative specimens.

“This exquisite little creature frequents the smaller trees in the thickest parts of the forest, feeding on various fruits; often of a very large size for so small a bird. It is very active both on its wings and feet, and makes a whirring sound while flying, something like the South American manakins. It often flutters its wings and displays the beautiful fan which adorns its breast, while the star-bearing tail wires diverge in an elegant double curve. It is tolerably plentiful in the Aru Islands, which led to it, being brought to Europe at an early period along with Paradisea apoda. It also occurs in the island of Mysol and in every part of New Guinea which has been visited by naturalists.

Alfred Russel Wallace on the Paradisea Speciosa

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the “The Malay Archipelago”: ““We now come to the remarkable little bird called the "Magnificent," first figured by Buffon, and named Paradisea speciosa by Boddaert, which, with one allied species, has been formed into a separate genus by Prince Buonaparte, under the name of Diphyllodes, from the curious double mantle which clothes the back. [Source: Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Malay Archipelago,” published in London in 1869 ]

“The head is covered with short brown velvety feathers, which advance on the back so as to cover the nostrils. From the nape springs a dense mass of feathers of a straw-yellow colour, and about one and a half inches long, forming a mantle over the upper part of the back. Beneath this, and forming a band about one-third of an inch beyond it, is a second mantle of rich, glossy, reddish-brown fathers. The rest of the bath is orange-brown, the tail-coverts and tail dark bronzy, the wings light orange-buff: The whole under surface is covered with an abundance of plumage springing from the margins of the breast, and of a rich deep green colour, with changeable hues of purple. Down the middle of the breast is a broad band of scaly plumes of the same colour, while the chin and throat are of a rich metallic bronze. From the middle of the tail spring two narrow feathers of a rich steel blue, and about ten inches long. These are webbed on the inner side only, and curve outward, so as to form a double circle.

“From what we know of the habits of allied species, we may be sure that the greatly developed plumage of this bird is erected and displayed in some remarkable manner. The mass of feathers on the under surface are probably expanded into a hemisphere, while the beautiful yellow mantle is no doubt elevated so as to give the bird a very different appearance from that which it presents in the dried and flattened skins of the natives, through which alone it is at present known. The feet appear to be dark blue.

“This rare and elegant little bird is found only on the mainland of New Guinea, and in the island of Mysol. “A still more rare and beautiful species than the last is the Diphyllodes wilsoni, described by Mr. Cassin from a native skin in the rich museum of Philadelphia. The same bird was afterwards named "Diphyllodes respublica" by Prince Buonaparte, and still later, "Schlegelia calva," by Dr. Bernstein, who was so fortunate as to obtain fresh specimens in Waigiou.

“In this species the upper mantle is sulphur yellow, the lower one and the wings pure red, the breast plumes dark green, and the lengthened middle tail feathers much shorter than in the allied species. The most curious difference is, however, that the top of the head is bald, the bare skin being of a rich cobalt blue, crossed by several lines of black velvety feathers. It is about the same size as Diphyllodes speciosa, and is no doubt entirely confined to the island of Waigiou. The female, as figured and described by Dr. Bernstein, is very like that of Cicinnurus regius, being similarly banded beneath; and we may therefore conclude that its near ally, the "Magnificent," is at least equally plain in this sex, of which specimens have not yet been obtained.

Alfred Russel Wallace on the Superb Bird of Paradise

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the “The Malay Archipelago”: “The Superb Bird of Paradise was first figured by Buffon, and was named by Boddaert, Paradisea atra, from the black ground colour of its plumage. It forms the genus Lophorina of Viellot, and is one of the rarest and most brilliant of the whole group, being only known front mutilated native skins. This bird is a little larger than the Magnificent. The ground colour of the plumage is intense black, but with beautiful bronze reflections on the neck, and the whole head scaled with feathers of brilliant metallic green and blue. Over its breast it bears a shield formed of narrow and rather stiff feathers, much elongated towards the sides, of a pure bluish-green colour, and with a satiny gloss. But a still more extraordinary ornament is that which springs from the back of the neck,—a shield of a similar form to that on the breast, but much larger, and of a velvety black colour, glossed with bronze and purple. The outermost feathers of this shield are half an inch longer than the wing, and when it is elevated it must, in conjunction with the breast shield, completely change the form and whole appearance of the bird. The bill is black, and the feet appear to be yellow. [Source: Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Malay Archipelago,” published in London in 1869 ]

“This wonderful little bird inhabits the interior of the northern peninsula of New Guinea only. Neither I nor Mr. Allen could hear anything of it in any of the islands or on any part of the coast. It is true that it was obtained from the coast-natives by Lesson; but when at Sorong in 1861, Mr. Allen learnt that it is only found three days' journey in the interior. Owing to these "Black Birds of Paradise," as they are called, not being so much valued as articles of merchandise, they now seem to be rarely preserved by the natives, and it thus happened that during several years spent on the coasts of New Guinea and in the Moluccas I was never able to obtain a skin. We are therefore quite ignorant of the habits of this bird, and also of its female, though the latter is no doubt as plain and inconspicuous as in all the other species of this family.

Alfred Russel Wallace on the Standard Wing Bird of Paradise

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the “The Malay Archipelago”: The Standard Wing, named Semioptera wallacei by Mr. G. R. Gray, is an entirely new form of Bird of Paradise, discovered by myself in the island of Batchian, and especially distinguished by a pair of long narrow feathers of a white colour, which spring from among the short plumes which clothe the bend of the wing, and are capable of being erected at pleasure. The general colour of this bird is a delicate olive-brown, deepening to a loud of bronzy olive in the middle of the back, and changing to a delicate ashy violet with a metallic gloss, on the crown of the head. The feathers, which cover the nostrils and extend half-way down the beak, are loose and curved upwards. Beneath, it is much more beautiful. The scale-like feathers of the breast are margined with rich metallic blue-green, which colour entirely covers the throat and sides of the neck, as well as the long pointed plumes which spring from the sides of the breast, and extend nearly as far as the end of the wings. The most curious feature of the bird, however, and one altogether unique in the whole class, is found in the pair of long narrow delicate feathers which spring from each wing close to the bend. On lifting the wing-coverts they are seen to arise from two tubular horny sheaths, which diverge from near the point of junction of the carpal bones. As already described at p. 41, they are erectile, and when the bird is excited are spread out at right angles to the wing and slightly divergent. They are from six to six and a half inches long, the upper one slightly exceeding the lower. The total length of the bird is eleven inches. The bill is horny olive, the iris deep olive, and the feet bright orange. [Source: Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Malay Archipelago,” published in London in 1869 ]

“The female bird is remarkably plain, being entirely of a dull pale earthy brown, with only a slight tinge of ashy violet on the head to relieve its general monotony; and the young males exactly resemble her. This bird, frequents the lower trees of the forests, and, like most Paradise Birds, is in constant motion—flying from branch to branch, clinging to the twigs and even to the smooth and vertical trunks almost as easily as a woodpecker. It continually utters a harsh, creaking note, somewhat intermediate between that of Paradisea apoda, and the more musical cry of Cicinnurus regius. The males at short intervals open and flutter their wings, erect the long shoulder feathers, and spread out the elegant green breast shields.

“The Standard Wing is found in Gilolo as well as in Batchian, and all the specimens from the former island have the green breast shield rather longer, the crown of the head darker violet, and the lower parts of the body rather more strongly scaled with green. This is the only Paradise Bird yet found in the Moluccan district, all the others being confined to the Papuan Islands and North Australia.

“We now come to the Epimachidae, or Long-billed Birds of Paradise, which, as before stated, ought not to be separated from the Paradiseidae by the intervention of any other birds. One of the most remarkable of these is the Twelve-wired Paradise Bird, Paradises alba of Blumenbach, but now placed in the genus Seleucides of Lesson.

“This bird is about twelve inches long, of which the compressed and curved beak occupies two inches. The colour of the breast and upper surface appears at first sight nearly black, but a close examination shows that no part of it is devoid of colour; and by holding it in various lights, the most rich and glowing tints become visible. The head, covered with short velvety feathers, which advance on the chic much further than on the upper part of the beak, is of a purplish bronze colour; the whole of the back and shoulders is rich bronzy green, while the closed wings and tail are of the most brilliant violet purple, all the plumage having a delicate silky gloss. The mass of feathers which cover the breast is really almost black, with faint glosses of green and purple, but their outer edges are margined with glittering bands of emerald green. The whole lower part of the body is rich buffy yellow, including the tuft of plumes which spring from the sides, and extend an inch and a half beyond the tail. When skins are exposed to the light the yellow fades into dull white, from which circumstance it derived its specific name. About six of the innermost of these plumes on each side have the midrib elongated into slender black wires, which bend at right angles, and curve somewhat backwards to a length of about ten inches, forming one of those extraordinary and fantastic ornaments with which this group of birds abounds. The bill is jet black, and the feet bright yellow. The female, although not quite so plain a bird as in some other species, presents none of the gay colours or ornamental plumage of the male. The top of the head and back of the neck are black, the rest of the upper parts rich reddish brown; while the under surface is entirely yellowish ashy, somewhat blackish on the breast, and crossed throughout with narrow blackish wavy bands.

Alfred Russel Wallace on the Long-Tailed Bird of Paradise

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the “The Malay Archipelago”: “The great Epimaque, or Long-tailed Paradise Bird (Epimachus magnus), is another of these wonderful creatures, only known by the imperfect skins prepared by the natives. In its dark velvety plumage, glowed with bronze and purple, it resembles the Seleucides alba, but it bears a magnificent tail more than two feet long, glossed on the upper surface with the most intense opalescent blue. Its chief ornament, however, consists in the group of broad plumes which spring from the sides of the breast, and which are dilated at the extremity, and banded with the most vivid metallic blue and green. The bill is long and curved, and the feet black, and similar to those of the allied forms. The total length of this fine bird is between three and four feet. [Source: Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Malay Archipelago,” published in London in 1869 ]

“This splendid bird inhabits the mountains of New Guinea, in the same district with the Superb and the Six-shafted Paradise Birds, and I was informed is sometimes found in the ranges near the coast. I was several times assured by different natives that this bird makes its nest in a hole under ground, or under rocks, always choosing a place with two apertures, so that it may enter at one and go out at the other. This is very unlike what we should suppose to be the habits of the bird, but it is not easy to conceive how the story originated if it is not true; and all travellers know that native accounts of the habits of animals, however strange they may seem, almost invariably turn out to be correct.

Alfred Russel Wallace on the Scale-Breaxted Bird of Paradise

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in the “The Malay Archipelago”: “The Scale-breasted Paradise Bird (Epimachus magnificus of Cuvier) is now generally placed with the Australian Rifle birds in the genus Ptiloris. Though very beautiful, these birds are less strikingly decorated with accessory plumage than the other species we have been describing, their chief ornament being a more or less developed breastplate of stiff metallic green feathers, and a small tuft of somewhat hairy plumes on the sides of the breast. The back and wings of this species are of an intense velvety black, faintly glossed in certain lights with rich purple. The two broad middle tail feathers are opalescent green-blue with a velvety surface, and the top of the head is covered with feathers resembling scales of burnished steel. A large triangular space covering the chin, throat, and breast, is densely scaled with feathers, having a steel-blue or green lustre, and a silky feel. This is edged below with a narrow band of black, followed by shiny bronzy green, below which the body is covered with hairy feathers of a rich claret colour, deepening to black at the tail. The tufts of side plumes somewhat resemble those of the true Birds of Paradise, but are scanty, about as long as the tail, and of a black colour. The sides of the head are rich violet, and velvety feathers extend on each side of the beak over the nostrils. [Source: Alfred Russel Wallace, “The Malay Archipelago,” published in London in 1869 ]

“I obtained at Dorey a young male of this bird, in a state of plumage which is no doubt that of the adult female, as is the case in all the allied species. The upper surface, wings, and tail are rich reddish brown, while the under surface is of a pale ashy colour, closely barred throughout with narrow wavy black bands. There is also a pale banded stripe over the eye, and a long dusky stripe from the gape down each side of the neck. This bird is fourteen inches long, whereas the native skins of the adult male are only about ten inches, owing to the way in which the tail is pushed in, so as to give as much prominence as possible to the ornamental plumage of the breast.

“At Cape York, in North Australia, there is a closely allied species, Ptiloris alberti, the female of which is very similar to the young male bird here described. The beautiful Rifle Birds of Australia, which much resemble those Paradise Birds, are named Ptiloris paradiseus and Ptiloris victories, The Scale-breasted Paradise Bird seems to be confined to the mainland of New Guinea, and is less rare than several of the other species.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Project Gutenberg or Wallace Online pdf ] New York Times, Washington Post, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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