Michael Moore is an expedition leader and naturalist who has earned a BS in biology and an MS degree in ecology, ethology, and evolution. He spent several years living in the highlands of New Guinea, working for conservation organizations and teaching field biology courses and the University of PNG. Today, he shares with us the history of the stunning birds of paradise.
Birds of paradise have been associated with the island of New Guinea from the moment the island was discovered by Europeans. Naturalist and explorer, Alfred Russel Wallace, wrote in 1869, “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 skins of birds so strange and beautiful as to excite the admiration of even those wealth-seeking rovers.” Although the ornamental plumes of the birds of paradise were highly prized and traded throughout Southeast Asia for centuries prior, the first specimens to arrive in Europe came in 1522 with the return of Magellan’s around the world voyage.
These initial skins were prepared in a method, still practiced throughout New Guinea today, where the legs and wings were removed in order to use the glossy and iridescent plumes as ornamentation for headdresses and costumes. (In the image above, the Huli wigman has at least six different species of birds of paradise in his wig.) Because the specimens were incomplete, and at the same time so fanciful, there was much scholarly speculation as to whether the birds perennially floated in the heavens.
The birds were collectively known as Manucodiata in Europe, derived from the name by which the Malay traders sold them, Mamuco diuata, or “birds of God.” Ultimately translated through Latin, Avis paradiseus, they became birds of paradise. By the end of the 16th century, they had become a symbol in Europe of a spice-laden utopia. As late as 1760, several species were known, though none of them from a complete skin, leading famed zoologist Carl Linnaeus to dub the largest with the name Paradisea apodia, “footless paradise bird.” It would be almost another century before any European saw a bird of paradise in the wild.
The family, Paradisaeidae, is correctly considered a New Guinea family with 37 of the 41 species inhabiting New Guinea and its satellite islands. Even today, the taxonomic limits of the family is a topic of much discussion and revision. There are two widely agreed upon branches—the crow-like Manucodes , where the sexes are similar; and the highly polygamous remainder of the family where the males are equipped with a dizzying array of shape-shifting groups of feathers, in sharp contrast to the rather dull plumage of the females. Birds of paradise are considered the ultimate example of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, where the whims of female choice have, over time, shaped both the appearance and behavior of the males, far beyond what would be beneficial for the males’ survival alone. So varied are the costumes and mating dances of the individual species, that it is at first hard to believe they are all members of the same family. Only when inspecting the unornamented females of the species, can one see the similarities across the family.
The paradox, and perhaps reason for the continued allure of birds of paradise, is that despite their ostentatious displays of costume and dance, they are decidedly difficult to view. In 1996, Sir David Attenborough achieved a lifelong goal by filming a number of birds of paradise displays via the BBC’s Attenborough in Paradise. The most recent effort to capture the full complement of these elusive birds, in 2013, was the monumental Birds of Paradise Project, undertaken by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientist Ed Scholes and photographer Tim Laman. Scholes and Laman are no strangers to Zegrahm travels, and often met at the Ambua Lodge , a hotspot in the New Guinea highlands for birds of paradise sightings. See the amazing results of their work at http://www.birdsofparadiseproject.org.
For more information, visit Papua New Guinea.