The Extraordinary Birds of Paradise

Found in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Torres Strait Island and eastern Australia, Birds of Paradise are members of the family Paradisaeidae, of the order Passeriformes. Birds of Paradise are possibly best known for the males of most species, which boast flamboyant plumage, with elongated and elaborate feathers extending from the wings, the beak or the head. Their magnificent plumage along with their intricate mating displays, have made Birds of Paradise a popular subject for nature and wildlife programs.

The name “Birds of Paradise” originates from specimens of the Greater Bird of Paradise (Paradiseaea apoda) that were brought back to Europe by explorers who had been on trading missions. Unbeknown to the explorers, the wings and feet of these specimens had been removed by native traders, apparently for decorative purposes. This led to the belief that the birds used their plumes to remain permanently in the air, giving rise to the name “Birds of Paradise”, as well as “apoda” meaning “without feet”.

The forty-seven species of Birds of Paradise range in size from the 50gram King Bird of Paradise to the 430 gram Curl-crested Manucode, with most species having complex mating rituals, including lek-type mating. A gathering of males for the purpose of competitive mating displays is known as a lek, taken from the Swedish word meaning “to play”. Before and during the breeding season, leks gather on a daily basis. Generally the same group of males meets at the same venue, with each taking up the same individual positions in order to occupy and defend their small territory. Each male will put on an impressive performance, which may include intricate dances, plumage displays, vocal challenges and occasionally sparring with a neighbor. These displays attract a number of females, which gather around watching intently before choosing a mate.

The hunting of Birds of Paradise has been going on since the beginning of human settlement. The beautiful plumes of many Birds of Paradise have been used in rituals and dress for centuries in places such as Papua New Guinea. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the indiscriminate killing of Birds of Paradise for their plumes for use in the millinery trade in European countries was common. Hunting and habitat destruction, mainly due to deforestation, has resulted in some species being reduced to endangered status.

Today these magnificent birds enjoy legal protection, which is good news for bird watchers who would like to see this fascinating bird family preserved for future generations of birding enthusiasts to enjoy.