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.

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