Birds of paradise

By Eileen Westwig, Life Collections Manager

The latest in our Presenting… series of single-case displays takes a look at one of the world’s most spectacular groups of birds – Paradisaeidae, or the birds of paradise.

A beautiful male Magnificent Riflebird (Lophorina magnifica)

The first bird of paradise to arrive in Europe was a skin that came to Spain in 1522. Many of these early skins were prepared by native hunters without wings or feet to better show off the bird’s spectacular plumage. Upon arrival in Europe, the apparent lack of wings and legs led to the myth that these birds originated from paradise and floated high in the skies, only to fall down to earth after their death.

Birds of paradise are members of the family Paradisaeidae, which contains more than 40 recognised species. Their closest relatives are crows and jays, of the Corvid family.

They inhabit the rainforests of Papua New Guinea, Eastern Indonesia and Eastern Australia and mainly feed on fruit and some insects. Hybridisation, when two birds of different species crossbreed, is quite common and can explain why many of the early described species were so “rare”.

Male Paradise Riflebird (Lophorina paradiseus) showing off iridescent plumage on its chest
Female Paradise Riflebird (Lophorina paradiseus) without colourful plumage, which helps to blend into the environment

Most species of birds of paradise are sexually dimorphic, meaning males exhibit the spectacular plumage these birds are best known for, whilst females have much less ornamentation and coloration. The male’s display feathers are highly specialised and have evolved from basic feathers. Like all feathers, they are shed and regrown every single year, which puts quite a strain on the males.

One of the first few Westerners to see these birds in their native habitat was naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace. He described the encounter, from a 19th-century Westerner’s point of view, in Narrative of Search after Birds of Paradise (1862) as:

Nature seems to have taken every precaution that these, her choicest treasures, may not lose value by being too easily obtained. […] In […] trackless wilds do they display that exquisite beauty and that marvellous development of plumage, calculated to excite admiration and astonishment among the most civilized and most intellectual races of man…

The Presenting… Birds of paradise case will be on display until 3 September 2019.

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