National Geographic : 1950 Feb
Strange Courtship of Birds of Paradise BY DILLON RIPLEY Associate Curator of Zoology, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University IT WAS a warm bright morning in the jungle of New Guinea. I sat in my small shelter of branches and waited. Every thing was still and quiet. Suddenly, with quick, darting flight, a coal black bird flew into a tree directly over a patch of cleared ground roughly 5 feet in diameter and 30 feet away from me. It was a male six-plumed bird of paradise and this was his courtship dancing floor. Even at that distance I had a flash of his china-blue eye and the patch of silvery feathers over his bill (pages 257 and 273). The bird sat quietly for a time, and then called-a sudden harsh croaking sound. He called several times, becoming more and more agitated. Finally, looking tensed, with tail and wings held rigidly outstretched, he left his perch and started down in a series of short flights from branch to branch. He seemed to move with trained precision, as if his course was charted by long usage. The last few branches were very close, and on these he hopped, stiffly and with little sidewise flirts of the tail. Once on the ground, he darted from side to side so fast that the eye could barely follow. In a moment it was over, and the bird flew straight off with one last croak. I did not see the object of his affections, but one of my collecting boys reported seeing a bird dance while a female coolly watched from a tree overhead. Evidently these dancing places are used for a long time. The horizontal branches on which the male bird alighted on his prescribed course down to the ground were deeply scored with the marks of claws. Trapping Takes Days of Patience As an ornithologist, I had come to study various species of the birds of paradise, whose courtship displays are the most curious and striking in all the world of birds. My camp was on top of Bon Kourangen, which appro priately means "Paradise Bird Mountain," in the Tamrau Mountains of northwestern Neth erlands New Guinea. Seeking a closer acquaintance with the six plumed member of this fabulous family, I suggested to my Papuan boys that they try to trap it. I offered them five guilders a bird, equal then to about two and a half dollars, a phenomenal price to them. At first there was a hushed silence, and then a shout of approval. At least 10 men looked about knowingly, smiled and nodded, then darted off to pack up their belongings. In 15 minutes they had all hit the trail, some of them with their wives. A half-hour later, to my distress, seven were back again, smiling a bit vaguely. "What on earth is the matter?" I asked. "What are you coming back for?" "Oh, Tuan," one of my gun boys said, "these ones don't really know how to trap the birds. They only thought so when they heard you make that big talk. And then they were excited about the money." Two days later, however, two of the men returned with six-plumed kourangen, and an all-but-incredible story. They told me they caught the birds by waiting a couple of days under a tree, holding one end of a noose. The noose was draped over a branch where the birds were in the habit of perching. Then the man waited. If his wife was with him, she would steal up at intervals to give him food. In all, five of these birds were trapped during my stay on the mountain, and, much later, one reached the United States alive. I saw the spectacular sicklebill, or long tailed bird of paradise, only twice (pages 259 and 274). One was a male sitting high up on the bare branch of a huge dammar, or gum tree. Evidently there was a female near, as he was displaying. The butterfly feathers stood out on each side. The tail was partially spread. Suddenly he gave his call, a loud penetrat ing whistle, sounding like the syllable "whick." It was a note I had heard often ringing over the steep valleys in the mountains. Then he turned and made a nose dive straight for the ground, a hundred feet below. At the last instant he braked with wings and tail and doubled back to the branch again, all in one graceful motion. The birds of paradise belong to a single region of the world, the Papuan, comprising New Guinea and neighboring islands (map, page 268). Their nearest relatives are the crows. Certainly the plainest of the paradise birds look a bit like small glossy crows. These are the manucodes, a group of five species of blackish birds clothed in shiny iridescent feathers of simple shape. However, that is just the beginning. From there the paradise birds branch off into a variety of unique forms.