ED SCHOLES: Everything extraordinary or interesting or fantastic about male birds-of-paradise is solely the result of the selection pressures of female birds-of-paradise for their mates. Sometimes we think of this as survival of the fittest. This is about individuals that vary in ways that make them more attractive to the opposite sex and allow them to mate more frequently. And we might think of this as survival of the sexiest.
TIM LAMAN: This project all started back in 2004. I received one of my dream assignments for National Geographic magazine. I'd been interested in birds-of-paradise for many years. But it took some doing to try and convince the editors to sponsor a story on the subject. But I got an assignment.
But I knew I couldn't do it alone. And I started looking into who was doing research in the field. I learned about Ed's work. He'd received a grant from the Society a couple years before. And he was off in New Guinea making expeditions and using this rather primitive video technology you see there.
So Ed was out there using video to record the bird's behavior and study their evolution in a comparative way. And this was, like I said, eight years ago. Looks, Ed, like you also got a little grayer since then.
But, really, the reason that it was such a perfect match to team up with Ed was his great field experience and ability to locate the birds in the field. He knows the calls down cold. We could arrive at a new location that we'd never been to before. And within a very short period of time, Ed would be able to home in on the birds, start to find their display sites, and so on. So he really brought an expertise in the field in New Guinea that was really critical to make this project possible.
ED SCHOLES: Tim is a scientist by training, and did his PhD Working in the canopy in Borneo. And it's this skill, this perspective as a scientist, and as a tree climber that's been extremely valuable and important to our project working on birds-of-paradise.
And so, for me, I was a biologist, mostly working on birds-of-paradise that I could see from the ground or near the ground-- and there's a lot of them-- but there are plenty that I wouldn't have been able to have access to at all if it wasn't for Tim's incredible ability to get into the canopy and give us this amazing canopy perspective.
So even me, as a bird-of-paradise biologist, a lot of these things I got to see for the first time through the eye of Tim's lens.
TIM LAMAN: It's really key to get up in the canopy for some of those species that display up in the treetops. Some do display on the ground. But species like this red bird-of-paradise choose the highest perches up in the canopy. In this case, the blind I built to photograph this bird was 50 meters or 165 feet off the ground, which was actually the highest one that I had to build.
But from the same blind I photographed the same bird, I think, on a different morning. Got this shot when he was doing this inverted display. And that was what got us going-- five months of field work over three years between 2004 and 2006-- that we spent working on this story.
ED SCHOLES: And somewhere along the way, during those first three years-- probably in some field camp not unlike this one-- and perhaps in some fit of a tropical delirium, Tim and I hatched this idea of, you know, hey, this is working out well. We've done pretty good on this first three years. Why don't we continue and try to see if we can document all 39? And I don't think at that time we realized exactly what that meant, how long it would take us to finish the rest. But that became our objective.
So of course, in order to document all 39 species, it means going everywhere that all the birds-of-paradise occur. So this is the global range of the birds-of-paradise. It's the compilation of all the different species distribution. And you can see that they occur on islands as far west as up here along the equator.
This is the Halmahera Island. These are the legendary Spice Islands that some of you may be aware of. They occur all throughout the island of New Guinea, mainland New Guinea, but not on all of the islands off shore New Guinea, only some. And they also occur as far east as these populations down here in Australia. Some of them occur almost all the way down to Sydney-- but even over here in eastern Australia.
And, of course, this took us eight years. So five more years after those original three, we did 18 expeditions during the course of that time. We spent over 500 days in the field, visiting 51 unique field sites all throughout that range, all just to document the 39 species.
TIM LAMAN: Yeah, and somehow, along the way, I managed to take over 39,000 photographs. We don't have time to see all of them tonight. So I've made a small selection.
ED SCHOLES: And so what I want to do here is give you a chance to actually see these birds, and see an example of one male from each of the 15 genera as if they were all perching together, so you can get a sense of the extreme diversity in both size and shape and coloration. And also, there's a pigeon over there, which is probably a bird you're much more familiar with, which is also drawn to scale so you get a sense of size.
And here's a really great example of diversity in size. The greater bird-of-paradise is one of the bigger members of the family. And right next to him is his closest relative, a member of the genus that Wilson's bird-of-paradise is in. And he's one of the smallest.
Now we're going to slide over. And I want to point out that if you look at those species over there on the far right, those are the earliest branch off the bird-of-paradise family tree. That's what we're looking at here. This shows their evolutionary relationships.
And those are the ones that are more crow-like in color and shape and form. And that's a good way of pointing out that birds-of-paradise are essentially glorified crows. Out of the whole world of bird diversity, birds-of-paradise are most closely related to crows and jays-- things that you commonly would see around here in DC-- and not at all related to other colorful or exotic or tropical birds you might see if you went on safari, or you went to Costa Rica or something.
But everything we saw there, and everything we've seen so far, and most everything we'll see tonight are actually the males. But there's an important other part of this story, of course. Right? And that's the females.
This is a female of a paradise rifle bird. This was one of the species that lives in Australia. We found this one, and Tim took this photograph, just in the mountains outside of Brisbane, Australia.
As you can see, the females look very different than the males. They are brown-- much more subtly colored, not nearly as ostentatious or exaggerated. But females play a very important role in the evolution of birds-of-paradise.
This is the courtship display area of one male Carola's parotia. He's there in the middle on his court. And you notice all of the females lined up at the top, there. You can actually see others in the background.
And so the most important take home message that I want to give you here is that female birds-of-paradise are actually the ones calling the evolutionary shots. And that everything that we're going to see that's extraordinary or interesting or fantastic about male birds-of-paradise is solely the result of the selection pressures of female birds-of-paradise for their mates, that they choose in contexts very much like this.
Probably most of you are familiar with natural selection and the concept that individuals vary in traits that better enable them to survive depending on their environment. Sometimes we think of this as survival of the fittest.
Well, sexual selection is a very similar process, but yet it's very distinct. And instead of being about individuals that vary in ways that allow them to survive better, this is about individuals that vary in ways that make them more attractive to the opposite sex-- in this case, the males-- and allow them to mate more frequently. And we might think of this as survival of the sexiest as one thing.
So this section we are calling 39 Ways to Woo Your Lover. We're not going to show you examples of how all 39 of them do it. But it's going to be a survey of some of the great examples of extreme evolution.
TIM LAMAN: One of the birds-of-paradise that I most wanted to see when I first started this project was this one, the Wilson's bird-of-paradise. It's one of the species that clears a court on the ground to make the area, I guess, where the females are going to come and watch them more attractive. Females do probably judge the males based on the quality of their court, as well as their ornaments and display.
So this male will come down every morning and clean his court of any leaves that have fallen overnight.
ED SCHOLES: So this is the male King of Saxony bird-of-paradise. These are incredible feathers and unlike any other feather that you would encounter in your everyday life. They actually have this plastic-like structure where the regular feather material has been fused.
But male King of Saxony birds-of-paradise spend a lot of time on top of these snags or on top of a tree that overlooks their territory. And they call and they vocalize, trying to attract a female in to where they have their courtship displays, which is in the understory.
And when a female gets close, a male will fly down from his perch where he's surveying his domain and go into the understory where he'll do his courtship display on a vine, which is really difficult to find in this forest of vines. So let's take a look at that.
You'll get an idea of what he does with those extreme feathers.
Now, to put this into perspective, if a male King of Saxony was a human-- say, a man of my size-- those feathers would be like having 10 or 12 foot poles or rods sticking out of the size of your head, and able to move them around in all directions with nothing more than something equivalent to the muscles that we used to wiggle our eyebrows with. So that alone is an extreme feat of this species.
TIM LAMAN: So most of the birds that we've showed you so far, you know, attract mates by their amazing colors, their displays, that are focusing around what we call sort of the color shakers, the color flashers. But there's a whole group of species that are not that colorful. But they specialize in transforming themselves into incredible shapes.
And this black sicklebill is one example. And take a look what he does. Here he is on his perch. And he's got a special set of feathers that he's arched up around his head. And a female's just arrived and is giving him a close looking over.
This is in the Foja Mountains in Papua. And this is actually one of the most exciting videos that I shot during the whole project because I knew that nobody had ever seen a female visit to this display, to this male. And so although it was known that he did his display like that exactly-- the female actually came and flew right up to the perch and looked him over from such a close range. That was completely a new observation.
Here you can see a sequence of stills that I made of the same bird on another day, where you can see these feathers, which are not his wings-- his wings are actually kind of closed over his back, there. These feathers are special shoulder or upper breast feathers. We call them epaulettes. But he can raise them up around his face and completely make this sort of ovoid shape over his head to create this really un-bird-like shape that seems to be the main factor that's their unique display.
ED SCHOLES: So another one of these incredible shapeshifting birds-of-paradise that transform from something birdlike into something otherworldly is this fellow here. This is the male superb bird-of-paradise. He has this incredible iridescent breast shield It's sort of shaped like a delta, there, or kind of like the wings on a pilot but much more glorified.
But it's what he does in his moment of transformation during courtship display that is really incredible. Here he is on his log-- they like to display on fallen logs in the forest. He sees a female up above. And he's showing her his breast shield. And then, there. He transforms into something that doesn't look at all like a bird. In fact, some people have looked at this and commented, after the fact, that it looks like a psychedelic smiley face or a UFO or a space alien.
So he's creating this incredible optical illusion, essentially, is what it is. Those aren't his eyes, that look like the eyes on the smiley face there. That's actually the feathers on top of his head that he's created this remarkable shape by lifting his bill up and pushing those feathers forward.
This is the superb bird-of-paradise. So, here, this is a really neat shot because you can actually see the obscenity behind the scenes, what the females never get to see-- all those feathers spread around behind. And you can see his wings, there. I don't know if you noticed that snapping sound. That's a non-vocal sound that the male is making by snapping his wings and some interaction with his tail.
Look how hard he's breathing. He's working hard to be able to maintain this posture this whole while doing this performance.
All right, so this brings us to Part Two: Bizarre Behavior. This is the male Wahnes's parotia. This is the group that I actually have studied the most throughout my research career. All of the members of this genus, all the males, they have this incredibly iridescent patch of breast feathers here. And they all have these six elongate wires that come out from behind each eye, three are behind each eye, with little spatulate paddle tips-- kind of like the King of Saxony, but not quite as extreme. But pretty unique. This one is the long-tailed member of the genus.
And so something that's important to know about all of the parotias, but this one here in particular, is that the males all build and maintain a terrestrial display area that we call a court. So in a patch of forest they find a right spot. They remove all the leaf litter. They move move away all the small growth. And there's something important that all of them have, is this horizontal perch that spans the cleared area there. And that's the prerequisite for making a good place to build a court for a male parotia.
And so for all the years studying parotias, this is what we've done. And this is Tim, here, working on a blind next to where a court would be, kind of out there in the audience. So you go out into the forest with your local assistants, start getting blind materials, put stakes in the ground, and start tying it together using natural, uh--
TIM LAMAN: Those guys are fast, aren't they?
ED SCHOLES: But importantly, the way we observe them is from the ground. So we're looking at the court not very far away, maybe just eight or ten feet away from where Tim's face would be right there, where the lens would normally go.
And this was really important. I chose to study this genus because they were very accessible. They display on the ground. And it seemed like a really great study. And this is the view of the quintessential parotia courtship display. We call this the ballerina dance. And it looks like he might be wearing a skirt or a ballerina's tutu there. And he dances around on the ground, on that court. It's like his stage.
And those aren't his wings. Those are specially modified feathers of his breast and flanks that he's wrapped around his body and covered his wings, very much like those other transformer birds-of-paradise.
But the important thing here is, where is the female, and what is she seeing? Well, the females perch on this horizontal branch above. And so the question here for this bizarre behavior story is, what is it like to see this display from the female's perspective? And this is something that we have been interested in from the very beginning of our work together, and Tim was interested in from the very beginnings of the photographic effort.
TIM LAMAN: Yeah, I had a couple of earlier attempts on previous trips to get a camera above and look down on the parotia. But it never really worked out for various technical reasons. But finally on this trip here that we're telling you about, we really went all out, full-on effort to get this angle from above.
So what I did was, I set up three cameras. One was right in the blind, looking at it from the front-- kind of the traditional view. I set up another camera on the side called Camera B over here that kind of looked across and got the whole scene of the court. But then the key one, Camera C, required climbing up on the side of a tree and attaching a very well-camouflaged camera looking down.
And some of the newer camera technologies that have come available in the last couple years allowed us to see through these cameras and remotely control them with computers. And so here I am climbing up a sort of makeshift ladder that we put together out in the forest, out of bamboo, to attach a camera, well-camouflaged, and even more so after we wrapped it with leaves, to look down and get the view from above.
Meanwhile, we ran the cables from those two cameras outside back to this cozy little blind, where Ed was able to control them from this laptop. And I am there shooting from the other camera with the big lens to get that front view.
ED SCHOLES: So this is just a really good example of why you have to like who you're working with on an eight year project like this. We don't usually work in the same blind together. That whole area with the blind is about a little bit bigger than the whole front of this podium, here.
First, we're going to look at that wide view again and actually see the ballerina dance of the Wahnes's parotia now. He does his bow. He comes out. He's walking out. There's not a female there on this rendition. He's doing a practice display, which these males do a lot, again and again, for the hopes of getting it right when the female is there.
But notice where he pauses and he does this twitching and he's waggling. Now, if the female were there, the question is, is what would this really look like?
So here's the view from above, looking down. And so, of course we knew it was going to look different. Right, you know, it wasn't too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that it wasn't going to look the same as it looked like from the ground view that we had been looking at for so many years. But I don't think we were quite prepared for how different it would look, even at this point.
So he comes out. The female's looking at him. And it looks nothing at all like a ballerina dancer. And, in fact, had we actually looked at this display from the perspective from which it had evolved, right, and that's the perspective of the female who's the chooser here in this, we probably would have called it the wobbling ovoid display or something like that-- not the ballerina-dance display.
So let's just take a look at this again, because there's something even more remarkable than just the shape of that male from above. Here's two cameras that are synced. There's the wide one, on your right, and the female's view on the left. There's better light here. But no female there.
The question is, is what's going to happen when he does that head waggling thing? There's this incredible flash of these iridescent feathers on his breast shield. And what he does is he plunges his head down like this and his breast goes up. And it's very perfectly situated to reflect this incredible yellow color directly up to where the female would be sitting on that perch there.
When you're looking at those feathers from the front and side, they actually are blue or green. And it's only when you look at them directly head on with the light behind you that you see this incredible yellow color. So these feathers are iridescent in that they show two different colors, depending on which direction you're looking at them. And this yellow color seems to have evolved specifically to signal to the female above.
But yet there's something even more interesting here that was a bigger shock to us. And I don't know if you noticed in that one, there, but there's also something going on in the back of his head. Well, all male parotias have this intensely iridescent feather on the patch on the back of their heads that we had never seen them use in display before. We really had no idea what it was for.
Well, it turns out, when he plunges his head down and that breast shield goes up, at the same time this basically reflector on the back of his head pops out. And he uses it to basically trace the waggle motion of his head so the female can see what's going on. Because he's so black, she otherwise wouldn't be able to see that incredible movement that we see from the front that we call the head waggle.
So that was a completely new discovery to us. We were thrilled to have gone through all the effort to see the female perspective and actually made a new discovery, not just seen it. And it just goes to show some of the scientific roots of this project and how we're discovering things in the field in addition to just documenting it.
Which brings us to Part Three. And this is Extraordinary Beauty.
TIM LAMAN: Of course, as you can understand, we didn't just find this place totally on our own. We had contact with the local villagers there and had permission to work on their land. And they acted as our guides and took us into the forest.
And it was a really interesting experience because this is an area where they've been hunting birds-of-paradise for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. And these men were all experienced hunters. But they had decided to set aside this section of their forest, of their land, and stop hunting the birds here in the hopes that maybe some visitors would come to see them and they could make a little money that way. And we were happy to support that idea and that effort.
And so this man, Eli Kerry, and his clan members helped me out in getting up into the canopy and getting where I could see these birds. I saw as soon as I got there-- I realized that I wasn't going to be able to photograph them from the ground. They were displaying up high.
And I explained to Eli, I said, well, I've got my ropes. And I've got my bow and arrow. I'll shoot a line up, and I'll climb up there and build a blind. They said, well, what are you going to build a blind out of? I said, well, I've got my camouflage cloth and stuff. And, you know, I do this quite a bit. And they're like, no. That's not going to work. The birds won't come if you do that.
So I said, well, OK, what do we do? He said, well, we have a certain way of building a blind. And you have to follow the protocol or the birds don't come. They start explaining it to me that you have to get up there and make the main floor platform with two main support poles. And then you're only allowed to use 12 cross pieces for the floor. And it all has to be tied together with vines.
And I said, well, you know, I need to take quite a bit of equipment up there. I need a tripod, all this gear. Can I have a wider floor? And they said no. If you have more than 12 poles, the birds won't come.
So I said, well, can we space the boards out a little bit and maybe make it a little wider and have some spaces in the floor? And they said, yeah, that's OK. So that's why you see there's a few holes in the floor there.
But anyway, these guys were amazing. They free-climbed up into the tree using a technique that I wouldn't dare try. They climbed up smaller trees and then bent them over using a strap that they threw around the bigger tree and bent them to get toward each other and then climbed over into the bigger tree and then they climbed up and they did that again. And they got about 80 or 100 feet up where we were and helped me build this beautiful blind, where I was able to spend several days filming these birds at their display like this.
So this is what we call a lek. It's a communal breeding site where more than one male of the greater bird-of-paradise gather.
And you can see females are coming to check them out. Notice that these birds have a phase in their display where they kind of freeze and pose and let the females have a really good look at them.
And again, here, you can see a still image from that type of a moment, called the flower pose, where the males are just freezing and holding their pose, letting the females give them a really close looking over.
And so, you know, I spent several mornings and some afternoons in this blind. And I was getting the drive to see that beauty, to capture that beauty. And so that always was one of my motivating ideas is to try to capture this beauty in the wild.
And I had in my mind a sort of a dream shot of a bird-of-paradise with a beautiful view out over the canopy in the background. And I realized after spending several days shooting these birds from my blind in the other tree nearby, that, hey, maybe I could actually get a camera up in the tree where they were actually displaying. And this might be the place where I could actually go after that.
So here I am. I decided to climb up when the birds weren't there in the middle the day. I decide to climb up into the tree that they had been displaying in. I've got a little camera on my head that's recording this.
TIM LAMAN (ON VIDEO): Here's the lek right here. See these branches right here? This is the main display perch and the secondary perch there. There's my blind over there, where I've been shooting from. And right here--
TIM LAMAN: Right there is the so-called Leaf Cam. This setup allowed me to get the camera close to the birds where I couldn't possibly build a blind and have them tolerate my presence. You know, it would be too disruptive. So on one particular morning when I got this all working, I was up there. And it was starting to get light. And just as it was starting to get a little bit light, males started arriving. So I started recording video.
Some females are coming and showing a little interest. And then a couple minutes later, actually, there was a female that was very interested and gave the signal that she wanted to go into the final phase of display. The male's sort of doing this neck tapping, which is the very final phase of the display.
ED SCHOLES: That sound he's giving, that vocalization-- they only do that in this pre-mating display. The female's there and ready to mate. And he will do that display and make that sound only in this context.
So that's what it's all about. If you're a greater bird-of-paradise male, that's about as good as it gets. That's the best way to start the day.
TIM LAMAN: Yeah, so he was having a good morning, there. And after this, he just decided to kind of relax, hang out up there on the ends of these branches. And the sun sort of popped over the horizon. And I realized that before my eyes, that this dream shot that I had had in my mind for so long was taking shape. So I switched the camera over to stills. And I clicked the shutter. And that's what I got.
Thank you very much.
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It took countless hours high in the treetops for photographer Tim Laman and Cornell University ornithologist Ed Scholes to record the secret lives, bizarre displays, and dazzling courtship antics of these stunning birds.