This story appears in the December 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In New Guinea kangaroos climb trees, and butterflies the size of Frisbees dart through rain forests where egg-laying mammals scuttle across the muck. Frogs sport noses like Cyrano’s, and the rivers are full of rainbow fish.
Yet none of New Guinea’s wild wonders have fascinated scientists as deeply as the creatures that 19th-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace called “the most extraordinary and the most beautiful of the feathered inhabitants of the earth”: the birds of paradise.
The 39 species are found only in New Guinea and a few nearby areas, and despite decades of exploration and research, no one had ever succeeded in seeing them all—until now.
In 2003 Cornell ornithologist Edwin Scholes and Tim Laman, a biologist and photographer, began planning a quest to document every species of the birds of paradise. It took them eight years and 18 expeditions to some of the planet’s most exotic landscapes. With still images, videos, and sound recordings—not to mention old-fashioned notebooks and pens—Scholes and Laman captured courtship displays and behavior previously unknown to science.
The natural world offers few spectacles as bizarre as the mating rituals of the males in the family Paradisaeidae. Explosions of golden plumes, comically stylized dancing, tactile wires like robot antennae, iridescent ruffs and puffs, gorgets and fans, and colors that outshine any gem—all this extravagance has but a single purpose. And that, of course, is to attract the attention of as many females as possible.
Birds of paradise represent an extreme example of Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection: Females choose mates based on certain appealing characteristics, thus increasing the odds that those traits will pass from one generation to the next. In New Guinea an abundance of food and a scarcity of predators have allowed the birds to flourish—and to exaggerate their most attractive traits to a degree that even literal-minded scientists have called absurd.
The brilliant plumes have been prized as decorative objects in Asia for thousands of years. Hunters who traded the first specimens to Europeans in the 16th century often removed the birds’ wings and legs to emphasize plumes. This inspired a notion that they were literally the birds of the gods, floating through the heavens without ever alighting, gathering sustenance from the paradisiacal mists.
In the 21st century Laman and Scholes set a goal of documenting the birds in a way that people have never seen them before: from the females’ perspective. On Batanta Island, west of New Guinea, Laman climbed 165 feet into the rain forest canopy to photograph the mating ritual of the red bird of paradise. On the Huon Peninsula, 1,200 miles east, he mounted a camera pointing down from a tree branch to get a female’s view of the colorful breast feathers and ballerina-like “tutu” of a male Wahnes’s parotia.
Though both men had experience in the tropics before they began their endeavor, neither could have anticipated the adventure that awaited. They endured harrowing helicopter rides and long treks along flooded trails, and twice found themselves adrift at sea when boat engines failed. In exchange for moments of thrilling discovery, such as the first view of the Arfak astrapia’s upside-down courtship posture, they logged a total of over 2,000 hours simply sitting in blinds, waiting and watching.
The sight of a glossy blue-black Jobi manucode marked the quest’s end in June 2011. Scholes and Laman hope their work will encourage conservation in New Guinea, where the birds’ habitat has so far been protected by its sheer remoteness. As Wallace wrote: “Nature seems to have taken every precaution that these, her choicest treasures, may not lose value by being too easily obtained.”
Society Grant This project was funded in part by your National Geographic Society membership, and through a partnership with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.