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Some of the first specimens to reach Europe, offered by New Guineans as gifts to Western kings, arrived in Spain in 1522 aboard one of Magellan's ships. It was rumored that these extraordinary birds came from the heavenly realms, where they soared through paradise without wings and never touched the earth. (The legend may have originated in the fact that wings and feet were often trimmed from trade skins.) The sight of the birds in the wild amazed early travelers: "My gun remained idle in my hand as I was too astonished to shoot," admitted naturalist René Lesson, who visited New Guinea in 1824 and brought back the first eyewitness account. "It was like a meteor whose body, cutting through the air, leaves a long trail of light." Their names bespeak the wonder they inspired: superb bird, magnificent bird, splendid bird, emperor bird.

For decades Europe's appetite for their plumes fueled hunting and vigorous commerce. At the trade's peak in the early 1900s, some 80,000 skins a year were exported from New Guinea for ladies' hats. Birding groups in England and the United States raised the alarm, and the slaughter abated as a conservation ethic grew. In 1908 the British outlawed commercial hunting in parts of New Guinea under their rule, and the Dutch followed suit in 1931. Today no birds of paradise leave the island legally except for scientific use.

The indigenous people of New Guinea revered the birds long before outsiders paid heed. The finest plumes were used as bride price, and the birds figure prominently in local myths as ancestors and clan totems. They are revered still. "We love these birds," says a lowland tribesman. "The people of my family are birds of paradise."

Anthropologist Gillian Gillison of the University of Toronto lived among New Guinea tribes for more than a decade. She points to a myth in which a girl places her brother's lifeless body in a hollow tree. She strikes the tree, and birds of paradise explode upward like smoke and downward like fire. The smoke represents dark, highland birds, the fire vivid, lowland species. "To local people, the feathers are related to the spirit flying," she says. "They also symbolize a birth. They're the origin of the world."

With their glam attire and sexual theatrics, birds of paradise also embody a biological mystery: Why would evolution, with its pitiless accounting of cost and benefit, tolerate such ostentation, much less give rise to it? After all, exhibitionism is expensive, in biological terms, and a red flag to predators.

"Here in New Guinea it isn't nature tooth and claw, but nature with painted skirt and crowned brow—a bird drag show," says biologist Ed Scholes of New York's Museum of Natural History. "Life here is pretty comfortable for birds of paradise. The island's unique environment has allowed them to go to extremes unheard of elsewhere." Under harsher conditions, he says, "evolution simply wouldn't have come up with these birds."

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