29 October, 2016

By Rachel Lovelock

“Birds of paradise glisten like seldom glimpsed denizens of an Asiatic harem, who are clad in gold of many hues and dipped in the purple of dawn.”––Thomas Forrest, The Breadtree Fruit, 1784.

No other bird family is as beautiful or as rich in diversity of plumage and courtship behaviour as the flamboyant birds of paradise, of which there are 39 species, ranging from the size of a starling to the size of a crow, with certain types sporting tails of up to one metre in length. Over the centuries, these fantastical trailing plumes and brilliant colours gave rise to incredible stories of the birds’ origins and habits. They were prized as decorative objects in Asia, while hunters trading stuffed specimens to Europe during the 1600s would remove the birds’ wings and legs to emphasise the plumes. This enthused a fancy that they were the birds of the gods, floating through the heavens without perching, while gathering nourishment from the paradisiacal mists.

In plumage, this bird range from glossy black to an artist’s palette of dazzling colours. Some of the feathers are as dainty as lace, while others shimmer with a metallic golden sheen. Some males have feathered ruffs, wattles, or bald patches of coloured skin – such as the Wilson’s Bird of Paradise’ – akin to creatures you would expect to find only in an imaginary land.

Their courtship rituals are phenomenal. The mature males have plumes, frills, capes, elongated quills and streamers, filigree feathers and skirts, with tails reminiscent of expandable fans, whips or twisted wires, designed to help the male flaunt his fantastic dance moves for his female admirers.  Some species dance in trees; others create a stage on the forest floor by sweeping away leaves to allow the sun to shine down upon them like a spotlight. Elaborate displays can include charging and then posturing stiffly, parachuting, hanging from branches, or alternately freezing and spinning.

Seatrek’s cruises offer rare opportunities to go birdwatching in Raja Ampat and to see the Red Bird of Paradise, Wilson’s Bird of Paradise, or Wallace’s Standard wing.