Decorated with the most extravagant plumes and feathers of any group of animals on Earth, the birds of paradise and their vibrant courtship dances have captivated scientists and explorers for more than 500 years.
David Attenborough is a huge fan, and so it was no surprise that this family of birds were offered a starring role in his new series Planet Earth II. But what might be surprising, is that for centuries we have been viewing a number of their performances from entirely the wrong angle, and in doing so, have been missing half the show.
The Wilson’s bird of paradise (Cicinnurus respublica) is a particularly beautiful example of this highly embellished family. Approximately the size of a starling, the male is dressed in an elaborate cape of vermillion, with a turquoise skull cap.
Like many birds of paradise, he performs his vivid and complex dance entirely for the benefit of the female, who, incidentally, is a dull shade of brown. But, crucially, she sits and critiques his concert from an elevated position, directly above him.
So what does she see?
Ed Scholes and Tim Laman, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, have spent over ten years criss-crossing New Guinea watching and filming every species of bird of paradise. They suspected that the female Wilson’s was enjoying a ‘secret’ performance that no one had ever seen.
Together with the Planet Earth II team, they set out to film the Wilson’s dance from the female’s viewpoint, something that had never before been attempted.
“The females are the ones who decide who gets to pass their genes on to the next generation, and they have a pretty strong consensus, in that only a handful of males mate with most females," explains Ed Scholes.
“We look at a male bird of paradise, and we realise he’s astonishingly beautiful, and marvel at his feathers, but really the only thing that matters is what the females are seeing.
Why are birds of paradise dating dances so extreme?
New Guinea is a relatively new island, having been pushed up from the sea a mere 10 million years ago.
There are hardly any predators, since few mammals have managed to colonise it.
Lush, wet rain forests provide high energy fruits all year round, meaning females are able to raise chicks entirely alone. This frees up the males to spend a huge amount of time and energy producing their extravagant ornaments and spectacular displays.
"So if we don’t try to appreciate these qualities from the perspective of the female birds of paradise, we are sort of missing the boat.”
Missing the boat, is a rather generous understatement as it turns out, since when viewed from above, the Wilson’s bird of paradise doesn’t resemble a bird at all, rather a bright and shining green disc, which flashes and shimmers in the gloom of the forest floor.
“Even though I had an idea of what to expect, I was really surprised at how different it looked. I thought: 'Oh, wow! This is going to be good!',” he laughs.
This never before seen angle was beautifully captured by the team for the Jungles episode of Planet Earth II, but Ed is keen to stress there is much more to admire than the large emerald breast shield, which viewers won’t fail to miss.
“There are lots of smaller details in the dance, which if you’re watching as a scientist, are equally astonishing. The inside of his mouth is an incredibly bright ornament, and when he gapes, the female is essentially looking straight down his throat.”
It’s hard to believe that we have been unwittingly admiring this dance for decades from the stalls, when all along the view from the dress circle was not only better, but a different show entirely. So are there other species of birds of paradise whose dances we’ve been judging from the wrong seats? Ed certainly thinks so.
“We have to consider what we’re seeing, and what the female is seeing, and there are definitely a handful of other species where we haven’t seen the full story yet.”
UK viewers can tune in to Planet Earth II, which continues on BBC One this Sunday at 20:00 GMT.
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