Secrets of a Bird of Paradise

January 10, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

Any bird watching enthusiast would agree that watching a male bird of paradise Lawes’s parotia trying to gain the interest of a female is a breathtaking experience. Its colorful chest, displayed against his black plumage makes for a spectacular show, and scientists have been studying their plumage to discover the secrets of the male Lawes’ parotia’s mating dance. It seems that the shape and special features of their feathers holds the answers to the questions that have been intriguing bird lovers for years.

To get the full effect of his mating dance, the male Lawes’s parotia spreads his wings around his body, allowing his feathers to look like a ballerina skirt, and puffs his chest out to exhibit the colors. As he moves from side to side during his dance, he repositions the feathers on his chest, allowing them to catch the light and evolve into a color display of yellow, blue and orange. The fact that these birds are able to change the color of their chest plumage at such a staggering speed has always fascinated those who have witnessed it, and now there are some answers to this magnificent natural display. To find the secrets to this bird of paradise’s plumage, scientist began to study each feather on its own and found a feature that is unique to this species. The feathers do have barbules, just like any other bird, but the difference is in the shape of the individual barbules.

Usually in the cylindrical shape of branches, this species’ feather barbules are shaped in the form of a boomerang. This basically serves as a mirror ball, so to speak. As the light reflects off the centre of the barbules, the feathers appear orange and yellowish in color, and as the light catches the sides of the barbules, the colors dance between blue and green. It was also found that the barbules have twenty-five layers of melanin, with small spaces between pigments, and is then covered by a thin keratin layer. As melanin is actually brown in color, the keratin and melanin are used in conjunction to manipulate light and create the stunning colors the species is known for.

Nature most definitely has a way of creating unique and mysterious features for each bird that takes the combined efforts of scientists to unlock their secrets. One secret that is still held by the bird of paradise Lawes’s parotia, is how the female bird perceives this display of color, and it does not seem that she is eager to share all her secrets with the world.

The Tale of Winston Perchhill – Part One

January 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Pet Birds

My name is Winston. Winston Perchhill. I am a happy member of a flock of three cockatiels, but it hasn’t always been like this. I would like to take you back to my earliest memories.

I was six months old and had been left in a bird shop by a man who was teaching me to whistle. He had told the owner of the shop to warn everyone to be careful when they came near me, because I was dangerous. It wasn’t clear to me what that meant, except that I probably wouldn’t get to visit with many people or other birds ever again. There I was, alone in my nice, large cage and separated from all of the other birds, some of whom looked to be close relatives of mine. They paid no attention to me at all, and I mostly contented myself by eating the food I was given and watching the controlled commotion around me, keeping an ear poised for any words I might have heard before. I spent the rest of my time whistling my little ditty, putting all of my heart and soul into every syllable and imagining that I was in a great mansion surrounded by birds of all kinds who were spellbound by my song. I determined not to forget even one note, because I felt in my bones that my song would be the key to me finding a new home, my forever home.

One day as I was busy whistling as usual, this strange-looking lady came in, walked past me, and went directly into the back of the shop where I had noticed most customers usually went. In a few minutes, while she was returning to the front with a package filled to the brim with seed, she stopped to listen to me. This was it; I knew it! I whistled with all my might, my nervous little body bending with the song and my swaying head reaching for the sky. I had won her! It was obvious!

“Does every cockatiel whistle that song, or is that unique to that bird?” she asked the owner, who was too busy with another customer to reply.
“Why is that bird here?”
“On consignment,” she was told.
“Male or female?”
“Male.”
“How old is he?”
“Six months.”
“Why is he here?”
“The family couldn’t keep him any longer.”
“How much would he cost?”
“Fifty dollars, and that includes the cage and the toys.”
“I’ll take him! Can I leave him here for a few hours while I do some other errands?”
“Sure.”

I was to have my own home again! A strange lady, granted, but she did know her music! When my lady came back, she was very happy to see me again. She put my cage into the back of our car and nestled me close to her in a small clear box. She talked and whistled to me all the way home, which turned out to be less than a great mansion, much less. My disappointment was tempered, however, the moment we went through the front door and I saw a tidy cage, inside of which were two beautiful yellow birds. They were smaller than I and we differed a lot in appearance; but they turned out to be pretty nice. The brighter one was quite talkative, although I could understand only a few of the things he said.

Those days we didn’t have much company, probably because in our house there also was a very old gentleman whom my lady was taking care of. So, although it was quiet, I had my birds, and my lady whistled to me all the while she worked and periodically reviewed my whole vocabulary. Then suddenly the old man was gone, and for two years my lady left our house before breakfast and returned after dark, until one day she came home for good, bringing with her two very tiny birds. We were together and had many visitors, and there was absolutely nothing to complain about.

The tiny birds seemed to enjoy being with the rest of us and my lady kept busy teaching me more things to say. We had settled on what I came to know as “The Marine Corps Hymn” to be “my” song. It fit me like a glove and I could whistle it perfectly within a couple of weeks. Every time strangers came into the house, I treated them to multiple renditions of it, to great acclaim.

The months drifted along uneventfully, and then a crisis came upon us. There were tears, and many people coming and going, measuring and removing furniture, and packing clothes and all the pictures and the pretty little china things that had decorated our house. My birds and I were put into the car and driven down the road for a few minutes, taken out, and carried into… a mansion. I was finally going to live in a great mansion! I stretched my neck to see what we were passing along the way inside and it was beyond my wildest dreams. There were birds in the bushes, birds in the trees, birds on the roof. They greeted us as we were carried inside, me whistling, of course, my Marine Hymn. It was bird heaven and I could have died right then and there and been satisfied!

We were placed in what was described as “our bedroom.” From our cages, we could look outside through a huge picture window, and my lady would put food on the porch for the outdoor birds to eat. They would fly in as one and land on the stone railing, impatiently waiting until the food was ready and my lady was gone, and then they would descend on the food, eating ravenously. This happened twice a day like clockwork and all of us birds, inside and out, would begin to get excited about the routine at least half an hour before feeding time. We were one big flock: the five of us inside watching our members on the other side of the window – little brown birds that chirped and huge mostly gray birds that had a very pleasant way of cooing. In the warm weather, we were joined by birds with red faces and little ones who were brown on the back and white on the front, while black-and-red birds ate down on the grass and noisy blue birds ate up in the trees. Once in a while some enormous black birds would soar overhead and in the evening ugly little birds dove around the porch eating right in the air.

On those warm days, my lady would put my cage in a small alcove on the porch, and I would whistle and talk to my friends from morning until evening, when I would be gently carried into my bedroom to rejoin my indoor birds for sleep. It was a wonderful time. My lady visited me throughout the day and often prompted me to say a few words, but mischievously I would say them only when I wanted to. On cold days, she would sit in a nearby room and talk to the five of us indoor birds, and I in turn would treat her to several choruses of my song. My indoor brothers and sisters would glance at each other in amazement and sit very quietly, listening to us. Life went on like that, and then death came.

First my original birds died, then one of the smaller ones. That left just one tiny gray bird and me in our bedroom. We did our best to keep each other company when the house was quiet and the outdoor birds had gone to their nests. My lady kept constant vigil, and the three of us had our hour together every evening just before sleep. Then one day I was all by myself inside with no tiny bedtime companion at all. I comforted myself with my whistling and of course I had my outdoor flock. I became content to sit in my cage and watch them bustle about and descend as one when hungry and fly away as one when scared or when their stomachs were full. Every year there were new members of the flock and every year I would find that some of those whom I had known in the past were missing. A strange big brown bird began to come regularly and perch on the stone railing, and my lady would hustle out and carry me inside when she saw him! I thus learned that not all birds were my friends, and I began to call a warning when he would arrive.

The Tale of Winston Perchhill – Part Two

Article written by Mary Anne Little

The Tale of Winston Perchhill – Part Two

January 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Pet Birds

The Tale of Winston Perchhill – Part One

After the passage of many years, this mostly tranquil, comfortable life was snatched away from me when my lady and I left our great mansion. I had done my best to get her to stay, greeting every stranger and telling them, in my own words, that we were very happy there and did not want to go, to no avail. Again I was in the car, but this time it was not just a short ride. We went through whole neighborhoods, over rough roads and roads that went through great red rocks, and into places completely covered with trees. We parked in front of a little blue house surrounded by snow, and there was not another bird in sight! I had barely had time to say goodbye to my outdoor friends at the mansion and now I had no one, except my lady. I was miserable and she knew it.

She kept me by her side all day and took me with her whenever she went anywhere in the car. Although I had a big window to look out, there was nothing to see except those awful green trees and that snow on the ground. Oh, the occasional group of four-legged animals would go by; but I did miss my birds. I was so unhappy, I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t even whistle. I just sat on the bottom of my cage and dreamed of my lost flock. Nothing could make me forget and I got weaker and weaker. I could hear my lady talking about me to someone I could not see and one day she left me alone in the house for several hours. When she came home, she was carrying a huge new cage that held the two most beautiful birds I ever saw! They looked somewhat like me; but I’m just a couple of shades of gray, and they were pure white! I knew I was in love with one of them the moment I saw her, and immediately I stretched and got myself off the bottom of my cage.

When my lady let me out, I strolled right over to the white birds and began to whistle as I had never whistled before. I belted out “The Marine Corps Hymn” over and over, slightly spreading my wings and bowing to my new love. I did not feel the sting I should have felt from the incredulous looks I received from the white birds and I began to tell them in my own words how I felt about her: “I love you, pretty bird!” When my love turned her back on me and hurried away, I asked her “What’s the matter?” Even though my appetite was returning, I forgot to eat very much. It had been a long day, but I was still serenading. When we were put to bed, they were in their cage and I in mine. It didn’t seem fair that that other bird got to be near my love all night and I had to sleep by myself! I thought about her until I fell asleep; and when I awoke the next morning, a few hours earlier than usual, I began my serenade all over again.

When we were finally allowed out and she majestically ascended my hanging perch, I stood beneath her looking up, and whistled. I quickly learned that she had a hard heart, but I was determined to win her over. During the daytime, the white birds and I were always free to go out of our cages. I noticed they had a bit of a waddle that I didn’t have, but it was quite endearing. When we ate, they pecked away incessantly until they got their fill and I would choose each seed carefully and munch on it slowly, giving my lady a glance after my every bite, just to make sure that she could see I was really part of my new flock. My muscles were very weak, so I had to watch from a distance as my white birds climbed between cages and flew up to the highest bookshelves and ventured throughout the house. I was, however, able to explore their cage, which was a wonder, filled with toys of every sort. At first, the white birds would pair up against me, not willing to share; and my love would call to him in her coy little way, while I would wander around alone, sometimes letting my competition know that I was serious about turning the head of my newfound love.

I don’t recall exactly when I succeeded in that, but succeed I did, in a big way! I had suddenly become irresistible to her and she was coyly calling to me! My lady began referring to the other white bird as “my dear little orphan boy” and I could totally empathize with him, but this was love and I wasn’t going to miss out on a second of it! I was an old bird—sixteen and counting – and didn’t have much time left, but I was beginning to feel great.

I don’t miss the mansion anymore and I have begun to think about my old flock less and less. The warm weather has returned and there are dozens of birds outside, along with many more of those four-legged animals, some with their babies, and many other types of animals who weren’t here in the cold. I have my pure white love and our mutual white friend, and a comfortable, cozy cottage, and my lady. That’s a lot of things to whistle about and I whistle periodically from morning until sleep. I have taken up the chirp of the white birds that is much more musical than a simpler one I borrowed years ago. I have truly become one of them: we share our cages and we eat and sleep together, and we are happy. Would you believe it, I can fly now – mostly, however, in a downward trajectory; but my wings are getting stronger and I glide farther every day! My lady smiles a lot as she watches over us. She and I still review my words and my song every day; and I have gotten used to sitting on her shoulder while we have good, long talks. You know, I never once let my lady touch my back until I saw how much my white birds enjoy it; but now I can sit for hours letting my lady stroke my feathers and rub my face, and kiss me – right on the beak! It is, in fact, a very good life!

Article written by Mary Anne Little