Monday, June 1, 2015

Featured Bird: The Parotia Bird of Paradise

The Parotias, or Parotia birds of paradise, are a genus of small birds that can be found on the Islnds of Papua New Guinea, to which they are endemic. Like other birds of paradise within the  Paradisaeidae family, the Parotias are known for their remarkable courtship displays and the dazzling array of highly evolved and adapted plumes that are present only in the male members of the species. During courtship, male Parotia birds of paradise perform on small "stages" that are carefully selected by the males by tidying up a clearing of any surrounding vegetation that might otherwise obscure him from view. Then, by raising a ring of feathers around his neck to form a ballerina-like skirt and adopting an upright posture, the male Parotia bird of paradise begins to dance by rapidly bobbing his head side to size and up and down. The black "skirt" and the rapid head gestures of the male bird are thought to accentuate the two brilliant metallic golden-green patches on the bird's head and on his neck that make him especially desirable to females who observe this display from overhead branches. The courtship displays of the Parotia bird of paradise is studied by naturalists and ornithologists alike in relation to the process of sexual selection in birds and how it is the shabby female members of the species that drives the evolution of such distinct and unique plumes.

A male Parotia bird of paradise in full display

The Parotia bird of Paradise was first discovered in 1876 by Luigi D'Albertes, an Italian explorer who spent many months charting the territory of the then virtually unknown interior of New Guinea. During one of his excursions into the forest, his local guide pointed to a bird sitting on a perch in a small clearing. D'Albertes' first reaction was to shoot and skin the bird, just as he had done with every other specimen he had collected, and he was just about to pull the trigger when the local man who was with him put his hand on his arm and said, "wait".

Parotia lawesii by Richard Bowdler Sharpe (1891)
"And then, D'Albertes became the first European ever to see the display of the Parotia Bird of Paradise. This is how he describes it in his book:

The bird spread and contracted the long feathers on his sides in a way that made him appear now larger and then smaller, than his real size. And jumping first on one side and then on the other, he placed himself proudly in an attitude of combat as though he imagined himself fighting wiht some invisible foe. At this time, he was uttering a curious note, as though calling on someone to admire his beauty, or perhaps challenging an enemy. The deep silence of the forest was stirred by the echoes of his voice. 

And then he pressed the trigger, and shot it.

When the smoke cleared away, a black object lying in the middle of the glade showed me that I had not missed my mar. And full of joy, I went to possess myself of my prey. But as I drew near, my courage failed me. I could not stretch forth my hand, and full of remorse I said to myself "man is indeed cruel." The poor creature was full of happiness, and one flash of a gun, and all his joy is past.

Excerpt taken from
Sir David Attenborough's Paradise Birds

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