The Malay Archipelago is where Alfred Russell Wallace first envisioned a mechanism for evolutionary change, making him the co-founder of the Theory of Natural Selection. While in this part of the world, he paid much attention to the Birds of Paradise, which he regarded as the most beautiful birds on earth. After seeing the displays of the Greater Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea apoda) for the first time, Wallace wrote the following:
When seen in this attitude, the Bird of Paradise really deserves its name, and must be ranked as one of the most beautiful and most wonderful of living things.
And he was right. The Birds of Paradise are beautiful – because in fact Sexual Selection drove them to be so. PBS Nature had an episode about this recently, Birds of the Gods, providing a window into their beauty, their behavior, and their relevance to the people of New Guinea.
On the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific lives the most striking and diverse group of birds on the planet. Birds of paradise defy imagination. Covered in spectacular plumage, each species within the Paradisaeidae family is distinct. Some birds are patterned with feathers of bright yellow and green, some have flashy iridescent plumes that catch the light, while others have tails that extend three times the length of their body. Bizarre courtship displays by the male birds show off their exquisite assets, as they dance, puff out, vibrate, hang upside down, stretch their wings, and even contort their bodies into completely different shapes in order to impress a nearby female.
The people of New Guinea see the souls of their ancestors in these creatures. The birds inform tribal ceremonies and their plumes are used as religious relics, fashion accessories, and currency. The first Europeans to see bird specimens in the sixteenth-century were sure they had stumbled upon a family of birds direct from the Garden of Eden. Nineteenth-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace believed the birds “must be ranked as one of the most beautiful and most wonderful of living things.”
NATURE follows local biologists and conservationists, Miriam Supuma and Paul Igag, into the dense, mosquito-ridden forests in their quest to document the mating behaviors of several exceptional and elusive birds of paradise. Their work gives us new insights into the habits and population health of the different species. Working with local tribes, they research which birds of paradise are most in need of protection, and the team is able to work toward curbing the hunting practices that put these delicate birds at risk. Don’t miss the strange, beautiful antics of a family of birds so remarkable, they truly do seem to be visitors from paradise.
You can view the full episode here.