Class: Aves (Birds)
Body length: longest—black sicklebill Epimachus fastuosus, up to 3.6 feet (110 centimeters); smallest—king bird of paradise Cicinnurus regius, 5.9 inches (15 centimeters)
Weight: heaviest—curl-crested manucode Manucodia comrii, 15.8 ounces (448 grams ); lightest— king bird of paradise, 1.8 ounces (50 grams)
Life span: unknown in the wild; up to 30 years in zoos
Incubation: 14 to 26 days, depending on species
Number of eggs laid: 1 to 2; 3 are rare
Age of maturity: chicks fledge at 20 to 30 days, reach maturity at 1 to 2 years
Conservation status: blue bird of paradise Paradisaea rudolphi, Wahnes’s parotia Parotia wahnesi, and MacGregor’s bird of paradise Macgregoria pulchra are vunerable.
The first record of birds of paradise in European literature was in 1522.
The greater bird of paradise's taxonomic name, Paradisaea apoda, means "footless paradise bird." Indonesians in the 16th century prepared the bird's skins for shipment to Europe without the bird's legs. This gave rise to the legend that the bird was a visitor from Paradise and flew without rest.
A male Raggiana bird of paradiseParadisaea raggiana is on the flag and stamps of Papua New Guinea. The bird is important in social and cultural activities and its plumes are often used as ceremonial decoration.
Many zoos have received shipments of male birds of paradise, only to discover, several years later, that their "males" were really females! For some species, it takes many years before the male has his fanciful adult plumage.
The San Diego Zoo began exhibiting birds of paradise in 1925; over the years, we have housed 19 species.
Birds: Bird of Paradise
Birds of paradise outshine other birds with their beautiful plumage and spectacular courtship displays. They are usually heavy-billed and rather stout birds, but there are many species, each having its own unique look and colors. Birds of paradise range from starling sized to the size of a crow. And that doesn't include the male's feathery tail that can be up to 3 feet (1 meter) long! Most of the male bird of paradise species come in a variety of bright colors while the females are generally dull brown. Some males also have wattles, bright-blue mouths, and colored patches of naked skin. These birds of paradise look like something you could find only in an imaginary land.
When it comes to courtship, birds of paradise are truly amazing. The adult males have plumes, frills, capes, quills, lacy feathers, and skirts, with tails that may look like expandable fans, whips, twisted wires, and more, depending on the species. Those tails may look beautiful, but they are not very helpful for flight. Instead, they are meant to help the male show off in any number of fantastic dance moves to attract as many females as possible and to outdo rival males. Some species dance in trees; others create a stage of sorts on the forest floor by stripping away leaves to let sunlight shine down on them, spotlight fashion. Many males will display in a common area known as a lek where they compete to catch a female's interest. Displays can include charging and then posturing stiffly, hanging from limbs, or alternately freezing and spinning.
Once the male mates with a willing female, he leaves to find yet another female. He takes no part in helping with the nesting or rearing of the young; the female does this job all by herself. Her nest is shaped like a cup and is made of leaves, ferns, twigs, and moss. Nests are often found in tree forks, but the king bird of paradise Cicinnurus regius nests in a tree cavity.
But wait! Not all bird of paradise species are brightly colored or have fancy feathered "ornaments." And not all males leave the female after breeding. Some species, such as manucodes Manucodia sp., are less colorful and flamboyant, the males tend to mate with just one female each breeding season, and both parents help with nest building and feeding the young.
Leaving the nest
Bird of paradise chicks fledge at 20 to 30 days of age but may stay with the parent(s) for many weeks before heading out on their own. Females reach maturity at about one year of age, males at two years. However, males that need their fancy feathers for courting take from four to seven years to gain their full adult plumage.
The feeding habits of birds of paradise are not well known, but scientists believe that most species are fruit eaters. However, there are some species that are known to be insectivorous. They have been observed tearing apart dead wood to get to insects. Some species have also been seen eating seeds, frogs, reptiles, and nestling birds. At the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park, the birds of paradise are given special pellets made for soft-billed birds, as well as apples, pears, papayas, and melons. During breeding season, mealworm larvae are added.
Bird of paradise skins and feathers are used by the native people in New Guinea in their dress and rituals, and they were very important to women’s fashion over a century ago. During the 1880s and 1890s, the bird of paradise was almost wiped out because of the fashion of using the bird's feathers to decorate hats. Up to 50,000 skins were exported each year. This practice was finally stopped in the 1920s when all birds of paradise were protected from export out of New Guinea. Today, some hunting is allowed but only to meet the ceremonial needs of the native society.
Humans in paradise
Once the isolated, mountainous island of New Guinea was a bird's paradise. Few predators other than native humans lived there. But contact with the industrialized world has brought the threat of extinction. The biggest problem birds of paradise face now comes from large lumber companies that clear all trees from rain forests for cardboard and hardwood products. We hope there will still be places in the wild for these avian Romeos to continue their courtship dances!