Published: July 2007
Feathers of Seduction
For New Guinea's birds of paradise, attracting a mate is a performing art.
By Jennifer S. Holland
National Geographic Staff

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.

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."

Fruit and insects abound all year in the forests of New Guinea, the largest tropical island in the world, and natural threats are few. Linked to Australia until about 8,000 years ago, the 1,500-mile-long (2,400 kilometers) island shared much of its neighbor's fauna. Marsupials and birds were plentiful, but placental mammals were entirely absent, meaning no monkeys and squirrels to compete with birds for food, and no cats to prey on them. The result: an avian paradise that today is home to more than 700 species of birds.

Freed of other pressures, birds of paradise began to specialize for sexual competition. Traits that made one bird more attractive than another were passed on and enhanced over time. Known as sexual selection, this process "is to birds of paradise what natural selection is to Darwin's finches—the prime mover," says Scholes. "The usual rules of survival aren't as important here as the rules of successful mating."

The diversity of New Guinea's birdlife also springs from its wealth of habitats, from humid coastal savannas to high-elevation cloud forests. Tangled swamps checker the lowlands, while a spine of rugged mountains, some rising 16,000 feet (5,000 meters), creates a labyrinth of scarp and crag in the remote interior. Shaped by volcanoes, earthquakes, and equatorial rains, the landscape is rife with physical barriers that isolate wildlife populations, allowing them to diverge into new species. (The fractured landscape is also reflected in the diversity of indigenous cultures; more than 750 languages are spoken just in Papua New Guinea, the eastern half of the island.)

Much of New Guinea remains wild as ever, its fauna still not fully explored. In December 2005 scientists surveying the Foja Mountains in Indonesia's Papua Province, the western half of the island, came upon the Berlepsch's parotia, a bird of paradise with half a dozen springy feathers on its head. This legendary species was previously known only from a few partial specimens collected more than a century ago.

Farther east, in Papua New Guinea's Crater Mountain reserve, the forest grows dense to the mountain's summit, forming a canopy that blocks all but the thinnest rays of sun. Birdsong rings out in the gloom, a hoot here, a trill there, a melodious whistle, a harmonic tone as when a finger circles the rim of a glass. Drenched by nearly 300 inches (760 centimeters) of rain a year, this highland terrain is forever dripping. The forest floor, composed of layer on layer of organic material, is a wet sponge underfoot. And always, from somewhere below, comes the muted rush of a cold river spiriting away last night's rain.

Trails are rutted and mud-slick, swallowing boots and bruising the ankles of a first-time visitor. But the local women and children, who for a few kina will carry heavy gear and even lead you by the hand, tread lightly on bare feet. Pull out pictures of what you're looking for, and the men will lead you on long, clambering hikes, their machetes swinging to clear a path to where the birds of paradise hold court.

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.

More serious threats loom. Though wholesale massacre of birds for the plume trade is long stanched, a black market still thrives. Vast palm oil plantations are swallowing up thousands of acres of bird of paradise habitat, as is large-scale industrial logging. Oil prospecting and mining are encroaching on New Guinea's wildest forests. Meanwhile, human populations continue to grow. Land ownership is fragmented among local clans, and their leaders disagree about which lands should be protected.

David Mitchell of Conservation International studies the Goldie's bird of paradise, a rare species with a fiery fan of plumes and a strident call that lives only on two islands off the southeastern tip of New Guinea. By enlisting local villagers to record where the birds display and what they eat, Mitchell hopes not only to glean data but also to encourage protection of the birds' habitat. The strategy seems to be working.

"I had come to cut down some trees and plant yam vines," says Ambrose Joseph, one of Mitchell's recruits. "Then I saw the birds land there, so I left the trees alone."

Mitchell is encouraged, but not sanguine. "Just because some elders become interested in forest protection won't stop others from turning the next patch into a garden," he says. "You have to keep coming back, keep telling the story and getting the next generation committed, or you lose momentum."

Meanwhile, in the dim light of the rain forest, a male bird of paradise again struts before an audience of coy females. For millions of years these exceptional birds have danced to perpetuate their kind. They'll keep dancing for as long as the forest offers them a stage.