Birds of Paradise

By Edwin Scholes; Photos by Tim Laman

People long ago thought these unusual birds must have come from some other world: Paradise!

Tap image for a closer view.

Are these birds for real? You bet they are! The one above, greeting the dawn high up in the forest, is a greater bird-of-paradise. At top right is a close relative, a lesser bird-of-paradise. Both live in a tropical place called New Guinea (GIH-nee, see map).

This far-off land is home to most of the world’s 40 kinds of birds-of-paradise. As a scientist, I get to travel there to study them. That’s me, Ed Scholes—at left with a computer, deep in the forest. Tim Laman, next to me with the camera, is also a scientist and a nature photographer. He took the photos in this story. The birds you’ll meet—with their bright colors, fuzzy feathers, funny tails, and wild moves—are all related. But you’ll soon see just how different they can be from one another.

VIDEO: WATCH A LESSER BIRD-OF-PARADISE

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This fellow is a real king of color! He’s the king bird-of-paradise, seen here strutting his stuff.

VIDEO: WATCH A KING BIRD-OF-PARADISE

FLASHY GUYS
Every bird with fancy feathers in this story is a male bird-of-paradise. The females look rather plain, with their color patterns of tan and brown. Males are also the ones making a racket and showing off their funky dance moves. So what’s going on? Why are male birds-of-paradise so flashy? It’s all about attracting mates. To do that, they may spend hours showing off for the ladies.  And that’s a lot of hard work! But the females work hard, too. They raise their chicks without any help from their mates!

POWERFUL GALS
Female birds-of-paradise may seem boring at first, compared to the fancy, dancy males. But don’t let the females’ plain feathers and quiet nature fool you. The truth is, it’s the females that “run the show.”

When picking mates, the choosy females prefer males with the flashiest feathers and most dazzling dances. And that means their boy babies will likely grow up to have awesome feathers and dance moves, too—maybe even more awesome. So future moms will probably pick them to be the flashy dads of the future. How’s that for girl power!

DANCING TO THEIR OWN BEAT
Every species of bird-of-paradise has its own way of getting a mate’s attention, called a courtship display. Some show off in groups high in the treetops. Others give solo performances in the lower forest levels. Some even make special “dance floors” on the ground by cleaning away all the fallen leaves.

Males of each species also have special “ornaments” for impressing their females. They may have super-long tails. They may have weird wire-like feathers that form tangles, curlicues, or paddles.  They may have glittery feathers that show up only when a ray of light hits them just right. They may even have special feathers that transform them into bizarre shapes that don’t look like birds at all!

Look at the wiry feathers on that twelve-wired bird-of-paradise. During his dance, he uses them to “tickle” the female below him!

VIDEO: WATCH A TWELVE-WIRED BIRD-OF-PARADISE 

The western parotia is the king of dance. For his “ballerina” performance, he lifts special feathers around his body to make a tutu-like “skirt.”

VIDEO: WATCH A WESTERN PAROTIA

Is this Wilson’s bird-of-paradise wearing a blue rubber shower cap? No, the bright color on his head is bare skin.

VIDEO: WATCH A WILSON’S BIRD-OF-PARADISE

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For everything you ever wanted to know about birds-of-paradise, visit birdsofparadiseproject.org online.

Now you see me, now you don’t! The magnificent riflebird puts on quite a show. He stands tall and sways his head from side to side to “hide” behind an open, cape-like wing. Do you think the female in the circle is impressed? Now check out a young male riflebird at the bottom of the page, practicing his moves.

VIDEO: WATCH A MAGNIFICENT RIFLEBIRD

“PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT”
Male birds-of-paradise definitely live by that saying. They often practice their dances even when there isn’t a female anywhere in sight. Practicing helps a male improve his moves. It also allows him to try them out in different locations and under different conditions. He wants to make sure, for example, that his performance will have the best lighting on his fancy feathers at just the right moment.

Young males look just like females until they’re about four years old. And they practice their dances even though they don’t have any of the fancy feathers yet. They may look a bit silly. But they need to be ready for when they grow up. After all, the mating game is serious business!

I think birds-of-paradise are the most beautiful, bizarre, and extraordinary birds in the world! Wouldn’t you agree?

WELCOME TO THE FAMILY!
Meet the world’s “newest” bird-of-paradise!

Did you know that we’re adding a new species to the bird-of-paradise family tree? On a recent trip to the far western part of New Guinea, Tim and I heard the call of a superb bird-of-paradise. We knew it sounded different from the superbs in other parts of New Guinea. So we tracked it down, watched it closely, and recorded its song and dance. It wasn’t long before we guessed we had discovered a different type of superb bird-of-paradise hiding in plain sight!

This superb was similar to—but not exactly the same as—those we had seen and heard before. It sounded different. Its courtship “shape” was different. Its dance moves were different. Even the female looked different from the more familiar superb female. Scientists call this “new” species the Vogelkop superb bird-of-paradise. The “original” one is now called the greater superb bird-of-
paradise.

VIDEO: SEE THE DIFFERENCE! WATCH A NEW BIRD-OF-PARADISE

Rangers: We thank the Macaulay Library at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the bird videos provided here. —R.R.

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