It really is a wonder that there are any birds left in Papua New Guinea given the passion that the locals lads have for dressing up in their plumage. The extent of their fondness for feathers is revealed in an exhibition at the Australian Museum called ‘Rituals of Seduction’ in which a comprehensive collection of stuffed Birds of Paradise are displayed alongside impressive headdresses adorned with a vast array of colorful feathers and splayed dead birds.
But what is really amazing is the footage of the birds themselves displaying their feathered finery in their native forest habitat. These kids are kooky! Dancing around on a purpose built “stage”, they lure their drab female counterparts in with dazzling moves that entrance the ladies into compliance. The funky Rifle Bird is one of my favorites. While his black and peacock blue attire isn’t the most colorful of the flock, his wing moves are definitely the coolest – sharp upwardly mobile gestures of glossy black wing tips that keep perfect time with his syncopated vocal rhythms and foot stomps.
In the BBC documentary ‘Human Planet’ we saw a hunter imitating the call of a Bird of Paradise in order to bring him into arrow range. This sort of specimen collecting requires incredible skill but is becoming harder to practice as foreign-owned logging and palm oil companies continue to clear forests in PNG.
Back in the mid 1870s when the artist John Gould was sketching illustrations for his book ‘The Birds of New Guinea, and the Adjacent Papuan Islands’, he was sent specimens from the Australian Museum collected using the same technique that he had previously employed on a 19 month field trip around Australia; “Without the technology of binoculars or the telephoto lens, Gould had little choice but to shoot the animals he wished to describe and illustrate”, explained the Director of the Museum, Frank Howarth.
It is rather distressing to see so many of these mind-blowingly beautiful birds silenced forever inside glass cabinets, especially when you think of all the other natural history museums around the world that have similar feathery stockpiles in their basements. But it does make you marvel at their beauty and understand why they hold such a magical fascination for the proud tribal people who share their jungle habitat with them.