Birds of Paradise

BirdofPardiseattnborough My mother was looking for some documentary DVDs from our library through interlibrary loan, and requested the BBC’s “Attenborough in Paradise and Other Personal Voyages“, which we watched last week.

“Attenborough in Paradise” is a wonderful documentary written and presented in 1996 by Sir David Attenborough, the English naturalist and broadcaster. When he was nine years old, he read “The Malay Archipelago” (1869) by the English naturalist and biologist Alfred Russel Wallace; the book is free online at this link. If I can find the book through the library, I will be sure to get it and write and post a review here. Ever since, Sir David had wanted to see the birds in their paradise. (In fact, just last year, in November 2011, he gave the Darwin Lecture, speaking on “Alfred Russel Wallace and the Birds of Paradise”, organized and hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine in association with the Linnean Society of London).

Probably some of the most beautiful and elegantly plumed birds in the world are Birds of Paradise. Birds of Paradise are only found on the island of New Guinea and surrounding islands. They perform some of the most interesting courtships and display extravagant plumes that some consider the most beautiful in the bird world, but little is know about the evolution of these birds.

I realized after watching the documentary from 16 years ago that it fits in very well with several current ornithological projects.

One of these projects is National Geographic’s “Winged Seduction: Birds of Paradise”/”Birds of Paradise: An Avian Evolution”, which includes an exhibit, a book, and a documentary film. The projects are all based on eight years of research and 18 expeditions, begun in 2004, by Edwin Scholes, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientist, and Tim Laman, a field biologist and photographer for National Geographic. They decided to do the first comprehensive study of all Birds of Paradise, covering all 39 known species, and were able to document several new behaviors.

The exhibition just opened at National Geographic’s museum in Washington, DC, on November 1st and runs until May 12th, 2013. There will also be traveling exhibits around the US and Canada

Along with the exhibit, National Geographic and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have published a coffee-table book Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds. The cover is beautiful, and it sounds very much like a book I’d like to read. It would also make a great holiday present for your favorite birder!

The book is available from the Cornell gift shop and at Amazon.

The documentary film of the project, “Winged Seduction“, just had its world premiere at Banff, Alberta (in my own province!) at the end of October, and Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes were there to present and introduce the film and speak about their work to photograph, film, and study these extraordinary birds. The movie first aired on television on Thanksgiving on the National Geographic channel. We don’t have cable TV, so I am looking forward to the DVD, which will be available in a few days, on November 27th. For anyone else who is interested in the documentary, there is a terrific trailer of the Birds of Paradise project.

Also, there is an exhibit currently at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton that ties in well with the Cornell/National Geographic project: “Fashioning Feathers: Dead Birds, Millinery Crafts and the Plumage Trade”, about the dangerous connection between fashion and natural history, which opened in March and runs through January 6, 2013.

A wonderful source of information on Birds of Paradise is the Fashioning Feathers blog, maintained by Dr. Merle Patchett, who created and curated the exhibit. The blog documents the making of the exhibit at the Royal Alberta Museum. You can find more information here. The blog has a whole page devoted to the Birds of Paradise, and I recommend reading it from top to bottom!

Unfortunately, because of such lovely feathers, the Birds of Paradise, especially the Lesser and the Greater Birds of Paradise, were greatly sought after for several hundred years, until the early 20th century. The first known “trade skins” of Birds of Paradise were seen by Europeans in 1522, but European naturalists would not see a live specimen until 1825.

When prepared specimens were first brought back to Europe, they caused great excitement, not only because of the beautiful plumes, but because the birds didn’t seem to have any legs or wings. The birds had been prepared by the indigenous traders their traditional way, removing both the legs and wings to better show off the feathers’ beauty; the traders would cut off the wings and feet, then skin the body up to the beak, removing the skull. A stick was then run up through the specimen coming out at the mouth. (This is very much how we learned to prepare study skins at Long Point this past summer). The Europeans assumed from this presentation that the birds lived their whole lives in the air, feeding on dew, and only coming to the ground when they died.

Here is an early European drawing, based on that incorrect assumption, of a wingless, legless Bird of Paradise drinking dew (from Fashioning Feathers blog),

Alfred Russell Wallace (1823 –1913), whose book had so enchanted the young David Attenborough, left in 1854 to travel around the Malay Archipelago for eight years, to study and search for specimens, including the highly desired Birds of Paradise, although it took him three years to finally see a living species of Bird of Paradise. (It was on this trip that he though more about his ideas on evolution and natural selection, and in 1858 wrote to Charles Darwin outlining his theory.)

Wallace returned to England in 1862, with more than 125,660 specimens, mostly insects and birds. He also brought back several live Birds of Paradise, with their legs and wings intact.

Alfred Russell Wallace writing about the Birds of Paradise he encountered in the wild,

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.

 …the males assemble early in the morning to exhibit themselves in the singular manner already described… 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 indigenous 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.

During the “plume boom”, in the early 20th century, the Greater Bird of Paradise was very close to extinction, with up to 80,000 skins were exported from New Guinea each year.

All around Canada, in big cities and small towns, women were able to buy parrot and Birds of Paradise plumes from the Eatons department store catalogue (from Fashioning Feathers blog),

The killing of Birds of Paradise for the millinery trade was first addressed in the 1920s when it became illegal to export from New Guinea the feathers from all species of Birds of Paradise, though to this day illegal hunting and exporting continues; Birds of Paradise are also in danger from deforestation. Interestingly, ne of the changes that helped save the Birds of Paradise also happened around the 1920s, with the change in women’s hairstyles from long hair to the shorter bob. The close-cropped style couldn’t support large hats and so the demand for feathers dropped considerably.

I would love to travel to New Guinea one day, and see any of the species of the Birds of Paradise in their natural habitat.

Here is one last very fitting quote from Alfred Russell Wallace, from The Malay Archipelago,

It seems sad that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturbed the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy.

This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man. Many of them have no relation to him. The cycle of their existence has gone on independently of his, and is disturbed or broken by every advance in man’s intellectual development; and their happiness and enjoyment, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone, limited only by the equal well-being and perpetuation of the numberless other organisms with which each is more or less intimately connected. 


There is also an episode of the PBS Nature series on Birds of Paradise, “Birds of the Gods”, also with David Attenborough, now available on DVD. Our library doesn’t have it so I’ll have to figure out another way to find it, maybe at YouTube.

2 thoughts on “Birds of Paradise

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s