National Geographic : 1953 Apr
424 The National Geographic Magazine guide stiffened and pointed. We waited min- ute after long minute. At last a small bird, hardly larger than a robin, flew to the perch. Dipping and bowing, he began like a drunken devil to wave and toss his weird, exotic plumes. Were they feathers? We knew they were; yet they strained credulity. Pointed, bril- liant, they seemed to spring like horns from the bird 's crown, trailing behind him in two fantastic parabolas. Here was the King of Saxony indeed, panoplied like a Teutonic monarch riding to battle with great plumes streaming from his casque of iron. Through the binocular I saw that the bird's breast was egg-yellow, his plumes sky-blue. He grasped a slender vine and, after a few moments of nervous gawking, began to bounce up and down, like a diver testing a board. The short black-velvet cape covering his back spread out over his shoulders like the partly opened wings of a beetle. Gradually the tempo of his bouncing in- creased. The magnificent plumes swept for- ward and down like the tines of a huge fork. Uncontrollably excited, the King became a trapeze artist. From his beak issued a series of hissing notes, like steam escaping. I scanned the perch for the female bird who must be there. I could not spot her rather drab body, but neither had I been able to see her in 1950, the only other time I had witnessed this dance. Yet on the movie film we brought back it was possible to glimpse her demure entry into the nuptial chamber. As suddenly as it began, the dance con- cluded. The King, reaching a climax of ecstasy, leaped upward in a great flutter of wings, then flew off to another of his dance trees, beyond our visual range. Climax of Centuries-old Search The scene we had just watched was, in a way, the culmination of a search some four centuries old. The date when the plumes of a bird of paradise first reached Europe is uncertain, but we know that the first definite description of them came from two skins brought back from the Moluccas in 1522 by 1\ilagellan's men on their return from the circumnavigation of the globe.* Few things from the Orient stirred the imagination of Europeans more. The plumes of later specimens were attached to skins from which the feet and legs had been re- moved, a procedure still followed today by native collectors. Europeans decided that these extraordinary birds had no feet and that they must have been blown to earth from a celestial paradise. The legend faded , of course, but the name remained: These were the " footless " birds of paradise-species apoda. And, because white men over the year s continued to rely exclu- sively upon aborigines to trap or shoot the specimens, the birds remained long among the least-known of all the spectacular forms of animal life inhabiting the world. To dispel some of the mystery which still clung to these birds, I had led an expedition for the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, into remote ranges of New Guinea in 1950.t We had collected 171 species of birds, among them 19 forms en- tirely new to science. In addition, we had found the display grounds of bowerbirds and of some of the rarest of the birds of paradise. How the 1952 Expedition Began I had wanted, however, to go back again. We had done much, but there was much yet to be discovered, pinned down, recorded on sound track, film , and notebook. Thus I was elated when, at the Explorers Club in New York one evening, a tall, deeply tanned member approached me, introduced himself as Armand Denis, and suggested I organize an- other expedition to New Guinea. Quickly we came to an agreement. Denis (producer of many fine films, among them Dark Rapture and Savage Splendor) would be the leader; I, the general manager. Robert Doyle, an Australian explorer; Robert Carmet, a French photographer; and young Henry Kaltenthaler, a Philadelphia botanist, would accompany us. So would Denis 's wife Michaela, and my wife Margaret. Both were veterans of expeditions to Africa, Asia, the Philippines, and South America. Our mission would be multiple: To film the Stone Age men who inhabit the land of the *See " Greatest Voyage in the Annals of the Sea," by J. R. Hildebrand, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA - ZINE, December , 19 32 . t See "New Guinea 's Paradise of Birds," by E. Thomas Gilliard, NA TIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZIN E, November, 1951. © National Geographic Society K odac hrome by E. Thoma s Gilliard, American 1\lu se um-Armand Denis Expedition Wrinkled Warrior Bears + Plumes of Paradise Like a Blazing Torch in the Sky New Guinea boasts perhaps the most splendidly arrayed men in all the Pacific. This highland "stron g- fellow," or subchief, looking older than his 50 years, proudly carries the skin and plumes of an upended Greater Bird of Paradise (pages 43 7, 438, and 439). His fur cap comes from the kapul, a forest mar- supial related to the opossum. Green scarab beetles encased in orchid fibe r and cowrie shells sewed to a headband serve as the jewels of his crown. A strand of pigtails around his neck, a bailer shell on his fore- head, and sections of mother-of-pearl on neck, chin, and nose complete the ensemble. Pig grease and charcoal blacken his face in the approved New Guinea manner: the darker, the hand- somer. Bow and arrows peep above his shoulder.