A Flamboyant Seduction

Published 02 March 2017   

“Birds of paradise glisten like seldom glimpsed denizens of an Asiatic harem, who are clad in gold of many hues and dipped in the purple of dawn.” ––Thomas Forrest, 1784.


Hand-painted images of the birds decorate walls in the local village.

No other bird family is as beautiful or as rich in diversity of plumage and courtship behaviour as the flamboyant birds of paradise, of which there are 39 species, their filigree feathers ranging from glossy black to an artist’s palette of dazzling colours, often shimmering with a metallic golden sheen. Some are the size of tiny starlings, others the size of crows, with certain types sporting tails of up to one metre in length. Some of the male birds have feathered ruffs, wattles, or bald patches of coloured skin; others have frills, puffs, head ribbons, bonnets, elongated quills and streamers, capes and skirts, with tails reminiscent of expandable fans, whips or twisted wires, all of which are designed to help the little fella flaunt his fabulous dance moves for his female admirers.

Over the centuries, these fantastical trailing plumes and brilliant colours gave rise to incredible stories of the birds’ origins and habits. They were prized as decorative objects in Asia, while hunters trading stuffed specimens to Europe during the 1600s would remove the birds’ wings and legs to emphasise the plumes. This enthused a fancy that they were the birds of the gods, floating through the heavens without perching, while gathering nourishment from the paradisiacal mists.

A train of glossy red plumes.

The male red bird of paradise flaunts his fabulous dance moves.

I first learned of the birds’ existence when I was a little girl. To me they were akin to creatures from an imaginary land, so it was no surprise to be told that I would have to travel a long way to see them in their natural habitat. Most of the species are endemic to Papua New Guinea, but a few species can be found here in Indonesia. These include the red bird of paradise and Wilson’s bird of paradise, which are unique to just a handful of islands in Raja Ampat, while Wallace’s standardwing is native to the northern Moluccan islands of Halmahera, Bacan and Kasiruta. The long-awaited opportunity to see just one of these rare species was presented to me as a guest on a ‘SeaTrek Sailing Adventure’ cruising through the spectacular region of Raja Ampat in West Papua.

During mating season, every morning at dawn – unless it’s raining – at the very top of the tallest tree, way up high on a forested ridge on the Papuan island of Gam, the red birds of paradise come out to play. They perform their exotic courtship ritual in a communal arena, known as a ‘lek’, 20 metres above the ground. We set out in the dark, at 5 o’clock on a wet and windy morning, for a slippery 40-minute hike up a steep, muddy track in the hope that the rain would stop in time for the birds to appear and strut their stuff. Happily for us, the sky cleared, the sun emerged and so did the birds. We heard them before we saw them, the ‘lekking’ males informing us of their presence with a loud, clear repeated “wak”.

The male sports a pair of dark green cushion-like feather pompoms above each eye.

The birds live in paradise – Saporkren village.

Then, silhouetted against the light of the new day, four males entered the canopied stage, their tail wires streaming behind them. Five minutes later, the arrival of two females, distinguished by their lack of ornamentation, sent the guys into an ecstatic frenzy, each one lowering his head and erecting his plumes over his back. As the sky got brighter, we were able to see their gorgeous colours – the male’s yellow beak, his iridescent emerald-green face, a pair of dark green cushion-like feather pompoms above each eye and a train of glossy crimson-red plumes. What followed next was a shameless sex show with one of the males posturing stiffly before hanging upside down from his branch. He then spread, fanned and fluttered his wings like a giant butterfly, seducing his prize for all to see.

Well, Mr. Red Bird of Paradise, it just so happens that you hooked me too with your fancy tail wires and your swanky green pompoms. In fact, I’m already planning my next SeaTrek voyage in pursuit of some of your colourful cousins.


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