Even with local guides, finding the elusive birds can be daunting. Their calls, unique to each species, tantalize you. Squawks, mews, and nasal bursts reveal Carola's parotia. A ghostly aria? That's the buff-tailed sicklebill. The superb bird of paradise seems to throw its metallic voice, sending you off course. At higher elevations the King of Saxony bird crackles like radio static. And within earshot, the rat-a-tat-tat of the brown sicklebill could be machine-gun fire.
At last a glimpse of a forest dance floor reveals a weird, obsessive performance. The magnificent bird of paradise, with its baby blue cap and filigree tail, snaps into the same crisp displays again and again, puffing up its breast to show off its glossy chest plate. The parotia spends hours cleaning its court and practicing its moves, often watched by younger males eager to learn the ropes. The buff-tailed sicklebill settles on the same perch at the same time every evening, popping open its pectoral fan for any watching female—or no audience at all.
The people of New Guinea have been watching these displays for centuries. "Locals will tell you they went into the forest and copied their rituals from the birds," says Gillison. At highland sing-sings, now more tourist entertainment than true ritual, the painted and mud-daubed dancers still evoke the birds with their movements and lavish costumes. "By wearing the feathers, you get back the part of yourself that living takes away," Gillison says. "You capture the animal's life force. It makes you a warrior."
Headdresses, some so wide and weighty that you'd expect the wearer's neck to buckle, bear groves of feathers and whole birds skewered and upended. Black astrapia tails stand tall among plumes of the lesser bird of paradise. The iridescent breastplate of the blue bird of paradise glows among intact parrots. And a King of Saxony's white head ribbon, threaded through a woman's nose, bounces as she dances—much as when the live birds bob to attract a mate.
Surprisingly few birds die for these costumes nowadays. Ceremonial feathers are passed down from generation to generation. And although local people are still permitted to hunt birds of paradise for traditional uses, hunters usually target older males with full plumage, leaving younger males to continue breeding.