Published: July 2007
Tim Laman


Few Westerners ever get to see the bird of paradise's courtship display in the wild. It took a lot of time, effort, and help from specialist Edwin Scholes and from local people to locate display sites in the remote forests of New Guinea. Once we found one, we built a blind where I could wait out of sight. Then came the long hours of anticipation. At some sites—even after spending many days in blinds—I never got any pictures because the male never came and displayed. But then there were those moments when the birds did show up. I experienced heart-thumping seconds when I saw such scenes as the blue bird of paradise flip over to his upside-down position and perform his astonishing hanging display, spreading his breast plumes into a fan, bouncing and buzzing, and waving his tail wires. He did something that is totally ordinary in his world but truly bizarre in ours. Being a witness to such spectacles of nature made all the hard work and discomfort worthwhile.


The twelve-wired bird of paradise uses a unique site for his display: a snag sticking up out of the surrounding trees. It had been hard enough to find any display site, let alone one that met my requirements for getting good pictures, but we finally did. To avoid looking up at the sky, I needed to be able to climb a nearby tree and construct my blind where I could shoot horizontally at the bird's display site. For several days, I climbed into the blind before sunrise and waited for the male to come. But when he arrived and called, no females responded. We seemed to have missed the peak of the 2005 breeding season, so we planned to try again the following year.

A few weeks before our second trip to New Guinea, we got a message from our local guide, Chris—relayed by two-way radio—that the male was still using the same snag, and females were coming. My blind was still in place from the year before, so we made the long journey. When we arrived, Chris met us with unbelievable news: During the previous week or so, the top of the dead tree where the male displayed had broken off. The bird was no longer using the display site. We spent several days searching for another active display tree, but with no success.


We were driving a rural road in the western highlands of New Guinea when—as we passed a small village—we noticed a huge gathering of people involved in what appeared to be a traditional ceremony. We stopped and saw that indeed, a sing-sing, or traditional dance, was in progress. Dancers carrying spears and battle axes, with faces and bodies painted and muscles rippling, wore huge headdresses of bird of paradise feathers. This was exactly what I wanted to photograph. Not a performance for tourists, but a real village ceremony where bird of paradise plumes still played an important role.

As I approached the fringes of the crowd, I pulled my camera out of my shoulder bag. Just then, I noticed a man striding toward me from the right. He was a dancer who had finished performing. His face and torso were painted in bold patterns, and his headdress made him look even more imposing. As he moved toward me, he shouted something in heavily accented English that I couldn't understand. And at the same time, he was pulling his stone axe out of his belt. I tried to signal my friendly intentions with a forced smile and started shoving my camera back into the bag, thinking it may have offended him. But suddenly I realized what he was saying. "Snap me! Snap me!" he was yelling. He wanted his picture taken.