WASHINGTON (Nov. 14, 2012)—After eight years and 18 expeditions, National Geographic biologist-photographer Tim Laman and Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientist Edwin Scholes have documented for the first time all 39 species of bird-of-paradise in the wild with photographs.
The birds, most of them living in the remote mountainous rain forests of New Guinea in the Pacific, are known for their extravagant, brightly colored plumage, crazy courtship dances and bizarre behaviors. Some of them can change in the blink of an eye to almost otherworldly beings: mysterious cloaked creatures; dancing birds with flared skirts of feathers; or odd-looking black and iridescent blue “psychedelic smiley faces.”
“This family of birds is a biological wonder of the world,” said Scholes. “At its core, this was a comprehensive scientific documentation project about aspects of these birds that have never been seen.”
Photographing the elusive birds-of-paradise and capturing their spectacular displays required technical ingenuity and sheer human determination. With support from the National Geographic Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Laman and Scholes visited more than 50 field sites across New Guinea, rigging up “jungle Ethernet” data link systems to control cameras from the ground below, or climbing high into trees and building blinds in the canopy, where Laman photographed birds from angles never viewed by scientists before.
“If you remain on the ground, shooting photos is usually a hopeless endeavor,” Laman writes in “Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds,” a new book he coauthored with Scholes. “Ascending to the birds’ level is essential, which is why tree-climbing equipment is a standard part of my kit on every bird-of-paradise trip.”
Their efforts paid off with some big surprises. For example, for 15 years Scholes had studied the remarkable displays of birds called parotias from the ground, where they flare out their feathers like a tutu and dance back and forth like ballerinas. However, when Scholes and Laman used a remote camouflaged camera to view a Wahnes’s Parotia courtship display from the perspective of a female parotia perched above, they discovered that she doesn’t see a ballerina-like dance at all. When the male spreads his black feathers around his body, he appears as an egg-shaped blob, embellished with flashes of iridescent colors from reflective feathers on his breast and head.
Other discoveries included:
- First-ever observation of the courtship display of the Arfak Astrapia, a long-tailed bird with brilliant green and black plumage that courts females by hanging upside down from a branch with its flag-like tail pointed to the sky.
- First photographic documentation of the visual displays associated with vocalizations of the Curl-crested Manucode, a crow-like species with an extraordinary voice.
- Photographic documentation of the communal courtship display of the Emperor’s Bird-of-paradise, a species found only in the mountains of Huon Peninsula in northeastern Papua New Guinea.
The birds-of-paradise are prime examples of sexual selection and are among the most elegant examples of extreme evolution on earth. In New Guinea, an abundance of food and a scarcity of predators have allowed the birds to flourish. Some birds-of-paradise have ribbon-like tails three times as long as the body. Others have wiry feathers that conspicuously protrude from the head, body and tail. Many have some version of a feather-like fan that radiates from the chest to encircle the upper body. All 39 species were captured by Scholes’ and Laman’s cameras — a yield of nearly 40,000 images.
Birds-of-Paradise by the Numbers
Number of expeditions to the New Guinea region: 18
Number of field sites visited: 51
Days on expeditions: 544
Commercial flights taken: 200
Bush plane/helicopter flights: 33
Aircraft taken that crashed later: 2
Boat trips: 58
Man-hours spent in blinds: 2,006
Hours Scholes spent in blind to film Riflebird display: 80
Times Scholes saw a Riflebird display: 1
Times an appendix burst in remote camp (Scholes’): 1
Days to reach surgery with burst appendix: 5
Audio and video recordings archived: 2,256
Photographs brought back (after deleting rejects): 39,568
The birds-of-paradise project is a National Geographic Society-wide effort and collaboration with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. An exhibition opens Nov. 1 at the National Geographic Museum, and the companion book is now on sale. A documentary on the National Geographic Channel, “Winged Seduction: Birds of Paradise,” will air at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Thursday, Nov. 22, and be released later on DVD. Laman and Scholes will present National Geographic Live lectures on the birds in venues across the country, including National Geographic’s Grosvenor Auditorium on Nov. 1 and 3.
An article on birds-of-paradise will appear in the December 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine, with bonus materials in the iPad edition, and an education portal can be found at www.natgeoed.org/birds-of-paradise. In December, a website will be released at www.BirdsofParadiseProject.org.
NOTE: Photographs, sounds and video footage are available upon request.
Tim Laman, a rain forest biologist affiliated with Harvard University, is one of the most accomplished wildlife photographers in the world. From the rain forest canopy to the coral reef depths, Laman documents the biodiversity of Earth’s richest realms and has published 20 articles in National Geographic magazine. Laman holds a Ph.D. from Harvard.
Edwin Scholes, a Ph.D. ornithologist and biodiversity video curator at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has studied birds-of-paradise for more than a decade and is a leading authority on their behavior and evolution.
The National Geographic Society is one of the world’s largest nonprofit scientific and educational organizations. Founded in 1888 to “increase and diffuse geographic knowledge,” the Society’s mission is to inspire people to care about the planet. It reaches more than 400 million people worldwide each month through its official journal, National Geographic, and other magazines; National Geographic Channel; television documentaries; music; radio; films; books; DVDs; maps; school publishing programs; live events; interactive media; merchandise; and travel programs. For more information on National Geographic Books, visit facebook.com/NatGeoBooks and nationalgeographic.com/books.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is nonprofit, member-supported organization with the mission to interpret and conserve the Earth’s biological diversity through research, education and citizen science focused on birds. Founded in 1915, the Lab is supported by 50,000 members and engages 200,000 citizen-science participants and 6 million bird enthusiasts who connect online at www.allaboutbirds.org. As a proud unit of Cornell University, the Lab has a leading team of faculty, educators, conservation scientists and engineers continuing a strong history of excellence in science, technological innovation and outreach. Learn more at www.birds.cornell.edu.