Published: July 2007

Birds of Paradise

Red Bird

Feathers of Seduction

For New Guinea's birds of paradise, attracting a mate is a performing art.

By Jennifer S. Holland
National Geographic Staff
Photograph by Tim Laman

His bend is deep and dignified even as his cape of velvet black feathers rises to expose pale flanks. Springy wires topping his head tap the ground, one, two, one, two. The showman's stage is a patch of earth that he's cleared of forest debris before scattering beakfuls of roots, like petals in a bride's path. His audience: a row of skeptical females fidgeting on an overhanging limb. Their attention is fleeting, so he launches into his routine, toeing forward on skinny legs like a ballerina en pointe. He pauses for dramatic effect, then moves into the jungle boogie. His neck sinks and his head bobs, head wires bouncing on the offbeat. He hops and shakes, wings flapping or tucked in, chin whiskers fluttering.

His performance has the desired effect. The nearest female quivers in invitation, and with a nasal blast the dancer jumps her. Feathered commotion blocks the view, and it's unclear whether the romp is successful. But no matter: Another show will begin soon.

Here in the sweaty, vine-tied jungle of New Guinea is nature's most absurd theater, the mating game of the birds of paradise. No other birds on Earth go about the business of breeding quite like these. To dazzle choosy females, males strut in costumes worthy of the stage: cropped capes, shiny breast shields, head ribbons, bonnets, beards, neck wattles, and wiry feathers that curl like handlebar mustaches. Their vivid reds, yellows, and blues blaze against the relentless green of the rain forest. What makes for the sexiest mix of costume and choreography is a mystery, but it seems the more extreme the better.

Birds of paradise perch on an improbable branch of the avian family tree, the flashy cousins of straitlaced ravens and crows. They began splitting off from their bland kin millions of years ago, evolving into today's 38 eclectic species. Of these, 34 live only on New Guinea and its satellite islands.

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