Birds of Paradise

· science ·

I sometimes amuse myself in idle moments by trying to compile a list of my 'Desert Island Animals' -- those animals I would most like to watch (not eat!) if stranded on a desert island devoid of other life. It's always very hard to choose, but collectively, Birds of Paradise often rank highly (choosing among the Birds of Paradise, however, is nearly impossible). So I was delighted to see some excellent footage of several species on the 'Jungles' episode of Planet Earth.

It isn't just that they are brightly coloured: many birds are. Birds of Paradise^1^ have so many pop-up crests, chest shields, cloaks and deely-bopper-like head appendages that they can change the outline of their body completely. They are the Transformers of the bird world. As if that wasn't enough, they often accompany this visual transformation with an eccentric dance and an unearthly sound.

The Superb Bird of Paradise (Lophorina superba) is a great example of this principle. At rest, it looks like a pretty black bird with a striking metallic turquoise chest, but when it displays, which you can see in this clip, it erects a set of feathers to turn its whole front elevation into a vertical elliptical shield, with a huge turquoise segment. Just in case that doesn't get the female's full attention, he throws in a clicking sound like someone trying unsuccessfully to light a gas stove, and bounces up and down in a sexy fashion. If you haven't seen it before, you'll be staring and yelling "Whaaat!". Even if you have seen it before, you'll be wondering (in the original sense of the word) how the heck you turn something bird-shaped into something that looks like the Superb Bird of Paradise when displaying. Birds of Paradise: Birds in Disguise.

^1^ That is, males do. The females are brownish and ordinary-looking. However, they are the architects of the males' amazing displays through their choice of mates, so they are impressive in another way.