In the video, a male bird — black with metallic-blue throat feathers — sits on a branch looking pretty much like an average bird, until a russet-colored female approaches.
With her arrival, he suddenly transforms himself into a pair of huge black oval-shaped sails with a thin-pointed azure arrow zipping back and forth between them at a ticktock rhythm, somehow making the sound of a fan being swiped repeatedly through midair. The connection between the bird of a moment before and this outsized wingspan apparatus is almost impossible to make.
The female is very intrigued indeed.
The Magnificent Riflebird (yes, that’s its name) is one of 39 species of birds-of-paradise documented in the field by National Geographic photographer Tim Laman and ornithologist Edwin Scholes in New Guinea and Australia over the past eight years. The males of these species can be astonishing in appearance. But it’s their behavior, especially their shape-shifting abilities, that can floor you.
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Laman and Scholes bring their marvelous findings to Seattle Sunday through Tuesday as part of Benaroya Hall’s “National Geographic Live!” series. The program, titled “Birds of Paradise: Extreme, Bizarre, Extraordinary,” will be “a really good multimedia mix,” Scholes and Laman promised in a phone interview earlier this month.
The two men have also collaborated on a gorgeous and deeply informative coffee-table book, “Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds”
(National Geographic/Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 228 pp., $50). A related exhibit, “Birds of Paradise: Amazing Avian Evolution,” is on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., through May 12, and is scheduled to travel afterward.
As Scholes explains, birds-of-paradise belong to the Corvoidea family and are, in a sense, “little more than glorified crows.” They’re evolutionary oddities, and like the peacock (whose tail famously made Charles Darwin “sick” because it seemed to run counter to all practical evolutionary purpose), they illustrate sexual selection at work.
In sexual selection, eye-catching male traits and behaviors are chosen by females from generation to generation, until those traits become, to human eyes at least, downright outlandish. Take the King of Saxony Bird-of-Paradise. Its two ornamental plumes, projecting out either side of the male’s head, can be twice as long as the bird’s body, and bear no resemblance to any other of its feathers.
The Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise is stranger still. Its wispy black “wires,” though they seem part of the male’s tail, are actually extensions of its yellow breast feathers. During courtship, the male swipes them back and forth across the female’s face. The best swiper wins the chance to mate.
“We find the birds-of-paradise intriguing,” Laman and Scholes write, “because they stray far from our mental image of a normal bird. They remind us of mythical creatures from another age and challenge our preconceptions of nature.”
One reason the males can spend so much time on courtship displays (and females can spend so much time watching) is that in the rain forest, food in the form of fruit is plentiful. The wild differences in appearance between the 39 species are due to their confinement within sharply defined habitats.
Those habitats can be literal islands, separated from the New Guinea mainland by an ocean channel. They can also be “eco-islands” defined by microclimates created by rugged mountain topography, the result of New Guinea being one of the most tectonically active places on Earth.
Those microclimates, the book explains, are engines of biodiversity.
“When you look across at another mountain range,” Scholes says, “they all certainly have a whole range of unique species. … You can look across a pretty narrow valley that some birds could easily fly across, and yet you have a whole other set of birds-of-paradise.”
When Laman, 51, and Scholes, 38, met in 2004, they were only thinking in terms of one trip to New Guinea, not an eight-year project. But they hit it off, worked well together and just kept going.
Their book makes mention of rampaging ants, invasive fungus and pig-noise that kept them awake at night in mountain villages. But in conversation, they casually discount these discomforts.
“Yes, bugs can be annoying,” Scholes says, “but for the most part they tend to be just part of the job and we don’t even think about them that much. … Whether it’s New Guinea or Australia or anywhere else that we’ve worked,” he adds, “we’re always thinking about those places and wanting to do more exploration, and be there when we’re not there.”
Between the time they’ve spent on expeditions and the work involved in putting a book and museum exhibit together, Laman and Scholes have logged a huge number of hours in each other’s company.
“My wife was always joking that I was spending a lot more time talking with Ed every day than I did with her,” Laman says.
When asked if the birds have had any marked effect on the men’s sartorial tastes, Laman quips: “I haven’t noticed any changes in Ed’s attire or anything.” But, they admit, the birds have inspired some “very striking” Halloween costumes among the children in their families.
Their audiovisual lecture will include some extras you won’t find in the book, exhibit or the www.macaulaylibrary.org
website where they’ve posted many of their field video-clips.
“Tim has done really neat time-lapse sequences,” Scholes says.
Apart from some high-tech gadgetry they have in tow, their expeditions don’t look that different from those that scientist-explorer Alfred Russel Wallace led through the same region 150 years ago.
As for the future, Laman and Scholes plan to keep up their birds-of-paradise investigations, especially their documentation of courtship displays that they haven’t yet been able to record in full.
“Those sort of ongoing questions,” Laman says, “we definitely want to continue pursuing.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org