BY RACHEL LOVELOCK
“Some have plumes spouting from their flanks, others from their shoulders, their chin or their forehead. One wears a tiara of six quills tipped with a black disc… another is bald with the skin of its scalp a piercing blue. And they flaunt these astonishing adornments in as great a variety of ways as it is possible to imagine.” –– Sir David Attenborough
No other feathered family is as beautiful, or displays such diversity of plumage, extravagant decoration, and courtship behaviour as the ostentatious Bird of Paradise.
There are 39 species, ranging from the size of a tiny starling to big, crow-sized birds, with certain types sporting tails of up to three times their body length.
The vivid rainbow hues of the Birds of Paradise blaze against the persistent green of their rain forest environment.
The male pole dancers, branch dancers and ballet dancers strut and dazzle in costumes worthy of the stage. They parading cropped capes and skirts, frills, ruffs and puffs, gorgets and breast shields, head ribbons, bonnets, neck wattles, expandable fan-like tails, elongated quills, streamers, whips, beards and twisted wiry feathers that curl like handlebar moustaches.
The birds can even extend these uniquely-shaped feathers and line them up precisely to magically change their outline into an alluring new shape.
What makes for such a sexy blend of attire and choreography is a mystery, but the more excessive the better, and all with the single purpose of attracting female attention.
Despite their garrulous calls, brilliant colours, perfect dance moves and extraordinary ability to shape-shift, the males are not guaranteed to win a mate! At the end of a male’s display, the ultra-choosy females move in closely to inspect and sometimes touch the male before making the final decision to accept or to reject.
I first learned of the birds’ existence when I was a little girl, growing up in England. To me they were akin to creatures from an imaginary land, so it was no surprise to be told that I would have to travel to the other side of the world to see them in their natural habitat.
At the age of 11, the other side of the world was indeed a land of my imagination, but then I moved to Indonesia and jumped at the long-awaited opportunity to see just one of these rare species during a SeaTrek Sailing Adventure through the spectacular region of Raja Ampat in West Papua.
If you go at the right time, it’s not too difficult to see birds of paradise perform their magical dating dance. This is because each male goes to the same tree every year to do it; some even use the same dancing trees generation after generation.
Our voyage took us to the Papuan island of Gam in the knowledge that every morning at dawn – during mating season – at the very top of the tallest tree, way up high on a forested ridge, the red birds of paradise come out to play.
We heard them before we saw them, the males using their voices to broadcast their location and entice distant females to come and have a look.
Then, silhouetted against the light of the new day, four males entered the canopied arena, their tail wires streaming behind them.
Five minutes later, the arrival of two females, distinguished by their lack of ornamentation, sent the guys into an ecstatic frenzy, each one lowering his head and erecting his plumes over his back, while remaining on his own personal branch of the tree.
As the sky got brighter, we were able to see their gorgeous colours – the male’s yellow beak, his iridescent emerald-green face, a pair of dark green cushion-like feather pompoms above each eye and a train of glossy red plumes.
What followed next was a shameless sex show with one of the males posturing stiffly before hanging upside down from his branch. He then spread, fanned and fluttered his wings in a crimson fountain, seducing his prize for us all to see.
Well, Mr. Red Bird of Paradise, it just so happens that you hooked me too with your fancy tail wires and your swanky green pompoms. In fact, I’m already planning my next SeaTrek voyage in pursuit of some of your flashy cousins.