Revealing the Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise Display

Dear Friends,

One of the most exciting things about what I do is having a chance to reveal aspects of animal behavior that haven’t been seen before.  A couple years ago, my long time bird-of-paradise collaborator Ed Scholes of the Cornell Lab and I made another expedition to the Arfak Mountains in West Papua, with the aim of documenting the Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise display from the female perspective – in other words, from above looking down at the displaying male.  We succeeded, and it’s been some time in coming out, but I’m thrilled to share that our footage now features in a brand new documentary on Netflix “LIFE IN COLOR with David Attenborough”.  Please check it out.  In the images and short video below, I share  the “reveal” of what the female sees – a perspective that we think is a first for natural history filmmaking on this species.

When in full display posture, the male Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise transforms himself into this unusual shape as he leans back from his small sapling perch.  His yellow cape fans out and is held over his head like a Jesus halo, and his green breast shield is spread into a broad oblong, with a striking blue banded “necktie” pattern down the middle.  Meanwhile, his two tail wires vibrate below him, adding to the spectacle.  Although we and others have photographed this species before from ground level, no-one (to our knowledge) has ever rigged a camera up above the display court looking down to catch the view the way a female sees it.  With our years of experience with birds-of-paradise, we have learned how to choose the right location and deploy hidden cameras without disturbing the birds to capture never-before-seen views like this!  After rigging our cameras in the dark, I filmed from the side, while Ed triggered the overhead camera to catch this moment.

When viewed from the side, like this shot I made from my blind nearby on the ground, you can see that the male’s breast shield just appears dark instead of bright green.  The bright green color that the female sees from her position is created by the structure of the feathers, and is thus a directional signal the male can focus on her.  As you can see here, the female really comes right in and gives the male a very careful looking over.

The male Magnificent BoP is a colorful bird even when not displaying, with bright yellow wings, maroon back feathers, and bright blue feet among others.  His two central tail feathers are elongated and wire like, and iridescent blue on the top.

Here you can see a female on the display perch right above the male, where she gets the full effect of the bright colors he is presenting.  Meanwhile, a young male, still sporting female type plumage, watches from nearby.  We saw many young males attending the performances of this male.  Research has shown that while there are genetic components to bird-of-paradise displays, there is also a huge learned component, so watching the master perform is key to being able to do it properly yourself one day.

To learn how I shot the Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise, view my video on YouTube by clicking the picture above.

This is the poster for the new documentary, now out on Netflix.  My BoP sequence is in Episode 1.

Thanks for tuning in to my adventures.  Please feel free to share this newsletter with anyone who you think might enjoy it.  Stay safe everyone, and be sure to get your dose of nature therapy (as well as that covid vaccine)!

Warmest regards,

Tim Laman