National Geographic : 1953 Apr
VoL. CIII, No.4 WASHINGTON APRIL, 1953 COPYRIGHT, 1953, BY NATI ONAL GEOG RAPHIC SOCIETY, WA S HINGTON, D . C. INTERN AT IONAL COPYRI GHT SECURED 421 New Guinea's Rare Birds and Stone Age Men Filming Exotic Birds of Paradise and Living with Primitive Tribes, an Ornithologist Scores Important New "Firsts" BY E. THOMAS GILLIARD H ERE in the cloud forest of New Guinea's central highlands the night had been long and wet, but dawn had nearly come now, and the rain had stopped. The two natives who had slept fitfu ll y on a bed of leaves beside my cot crouched, shivering , over their smudgy fire. To the tribesmen in a near-by hut I shouted, "Workem kil" ( " Get the food ready l ") . Soon a big, jet-skinned mountain- eer entered the shack carrying bread, a can of butter, and a pot of steaming coffee. A few minutes later we took off through the dripping vegetation, feeling our way over a steep, muddy trail cluttered with fallen timber. Through rhododendronlike growth we climbed steadily to 7,500 feet until, just ahead, we made out our well-camouflaged objective-the 50-foot tower of poles and vines we had fastened together the day before . Up its shaky, slippery ladder we clambered, a small fortune in lenses and cameras swing- ing from our shoulders and necks. On the Trail of a King To an onlooker our patrol might well have appeared a sinister operation. But to me it suddenly seemed a little comic. Here I was, half a world away from my home in Manhat- tan, clinging to a flimsy rung high above a forest no white man is believed ever to have visited. Why? Just to see some birds! For this I had bought, nine months before, food and equipment for 900 man-days in one of the remotest parts of the globe. For this I had stocked up with-among other things-enough yeast and flour to bake 200 loaves of bread, and half a dozen soccer balls to give to important chiefs . In the National Geographic Society 's headquarters at Wash- ington, I had worked day after day striving to master the mysteries of electronic lighting and the complexities of special cameras. Yes , all this just to see some birds. But what birds! Our quarry was no less than the birds of paradise-especially the most spec- tacular of them all, the King of Saxony. Only one specimen had ever been taken alive to a zoo, and that one died almost immediately. No still pictures of this bird of paradise in its native habitat had yet been made. Until our 1950 trip to New Guinea two years before, only one or two white men had witnessed its peculiar, long-fabled dance of courtship.* The King Woos a Queen Despite the rarity of paradise birds, we had already seen their plumes by the score. Natives hunt them with the intensity of gold prospectors, and on special occasions wear fantastic arrays of plumes beyond all price. Reserved for chiefs are those of the King of Saxony , whose wooing we now hoped to watch (pages 444-445). Reaching the top of the tower, I set up tripods, cameras, and sound recorder. Then I aimed a 16-inch telephoto lens at a little spirelike limb that rose in the mist above the crown of a subtropical forest giant. Presently, in the first rays of sunlight, I heard from afar soft hissing notes which sounded more reptilian than birdlike. My * See " Strange Courtship of Birds of Paradise," by Dillon Ripley, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, February, 1950.