a web page by Don Roberson
  • 39 species in tropical Australasia, primarily New Guinea
  • DR personal total: 28 species (72%), 2 photo'd

As a family the Paradisaeidae are the most impressive set of birds in the world. Although they are just highly-modified corvoids (Sibley & Ahlquist 1990), a detail hinted at by their raucous cries, the variety and beauty of the plumes, shields, streamers, wires, and plumage of the males is truly astonishing. The birds-of-paradise evolved in New Guinea, a land with abundant food but without mammalian predators. This permitted the development of a lek system with females selecting the most gaudy male. Perhaps the most famous BOPs are the genus Paradisaea, of which Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise (left in a glowing photo by Simon Woolley & Julia Casson) is a good example. There are seven species in Paradisaea, including Blue Bird-of-Paradise (inset below; art by Arthur Singer) that I've chosen as among the "best birds of the world" because it is spectacular; has an unworldly "upside-down" display; and is limited to a very small montane area of Papua New Guinea.

As it turns out, I included four birds-of-paradise ["BOP" in birder lingo] among my choices for the "best birds in the world," more than any other family of birds. Yet the standard Paradisaea birds-of-paradise are not my choices for the most spectacular BOPs. For those I pick the genera Parotia, Cicinnurus, Drepanornis, Epimachus, and Semioptera. Those in the first two genera perform incredible displays on carefully tended dancing grounds on the forest floor. The Drepanornis sicklebills have inverted poses high in a display tree while Epimachus sicklebills and Semioptera standardwing distort into unworldly poses. These displays are rarely witnessed. For the forest-floor dancers, one must have a blind (which locals construct out of forest materials on the spot) and a lot of time and patience. The first films of dancing parotias were acquired in the 1990s and now highlight the BBC film Attenborough in Paradise (the best bird film I have ever seen). My friend Will Betz, working with National Geographic, obtained this shot of a Carola's Parotia in full display (right), dancing in its "cape" on the forest floor. Limits of this web media preclude seeing details shown in the original photo, such as the six thin wires being waved from the crown. You must see the BBC video to observe the frenzy to which the male works himself up in his unbelievable performance.

None of the spectacular birds-of-paradise surpass Wilson's Bird-of-Paradise in electric plumage (above). I've chosen it as the best passerine in the entire world (shown wonderfully in this photo, above, by Rob Hutchinson). It is limited in distribution to the islands of Waigeo and Batanta off the western tip of New Guinea. In the field the blue bare skin on the crown is so vivid you could read by it at night, the deep scarlet back and velvet green breast are lush, and the curlicue tail gleams bright silver. These outrageous colors and its remarkable display are shown in the BBC film Attenborough in Paradise. which was the first to obtain videos of this exotic creature. That film also delves into the history of western knowledge of these birds, which were once thought to exist only high above the earth, without feet or wings, and living on the dew of the heavens!

Another unforgettable display is that of a a male King-of-Saxony Bird-of-Paradise (below in an excellent shot by K. David Bishop). With its two unbelievable head plumes that are held in a "V" above the head, quivering, when he goes into full display, it is also among the most astonishing of the birds-of-paradise. Its voice sounds like radio static. His enthusiasm is as energetic as any bop, and that is shown in the BBC film.

Until recently, I had not photographed any bird-of-paradise in the wild. My friend Steve Wilson photographed the wild displaying Lesser Bird-of-Paradise (left) during our 1983 visit to Papua New Guinea. I watched the latter bird — in its display tree at Baiyer River Sanctuary, back when that was a reasonably safe place to visit — as can be seen from the self-timer photo below (I'm flanked by Steve Wilson, left, and Chris Spooner, right).

I finally got my first photo of a BOP on Halmahera island in Indonesia in 2011: this displaying Wallace's Standardwing (left 2 pics) high in the canopy above me, with a flash at dawn. Again, it is the BBC film Attenborough in Paradise that has incredible footage of its display, including the maneuvers made with the white 'standards' attached to the front of its wing.

Dawn is also the only time to see the display of Black Sicklebill (right, in a shot by Will Betz). See the Attenborough film for the display of this very local species, another "top 50" bird, which is almost impossible to believe.

Female sicklebills are quite lovely in her own plumage: a female Brown Sicklebill shows nicely in this shot (left) by Simon Woolley & Julia Casson. The patterns are subtle and rich, and just add more superlatives to any discussion of this family.

In the gallery of three photos below, we can compare a female Victoria Riflebird (upper) as she checks out a displaying male (bottom two) who is engaging in loud vocalizations and in a full wing-spread display. These photos of Victoria Riflebird are by Hans & Judy Beste. They were taken in Queensland, Australia, where the Bestes once operated a birders' bed-and-breakfast named "Ptilornis" after riflebirds, the only genus of
birds-of-paradise that occur widely in eastern Australia.

Modified breast shields that form unworldly cravats are features of Wallace's Standardwing (of velvet green) and of Superb Bird-of-Paradise (of glowing blue, left, in another great shot by Will Betz).

Among other impressive BOPS are all of the five Astrapias whose long tail trains reach astonishing lengths the sago palm swamp specialist, the Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise Seleucidis melanoleuca (again, see the Attenborough film).

In theory, male birds-of-paradise developed all these incredible ornaments and displays because of female sexual selection. In a land where babies can be raised and defended by females alone, a male is not needed to help feed the young or protect them. Females do these functions, and have evolved protective coloration to keep themselves inconspicuous. But they chose to mate with the most gaudy male available. Males, in turn, spend almost all their time trying to attract females. This has created incredible sexual dimorphism in the Paradisaeidae, and promoted rapid evolution in male plumages (Christidis & Schodde 1993).

Those BOPs in the genus Cicinnurus dance on courts that they clear on the forest floor. This includes Wilson's Bird-of-Paradise and Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise C. magnificus. An absolutely beautiful photo of the latter on a display court is in Coates (1990); there are wonderful shots of King Bird-of-Paradise C. regius at a forest pool there also. I have marveled at both of those species in the wild. More outstanding images of BOPs are in Frith & Frith (2009).

Although I've emphasized the spectacular BOPs, and the extensive sexual dimorphism in these genera, there are primitive birds-of-paradise in which the sexes are similar. These are the five species of manucode (genus Manucodia; Trumpet Manucode sometimes separated as Phonygammus), two paradigallas (Paradigalla), and Paradise Crow Lycocorax pyrrhopterus of the Moluccas. The latter is shown perched high in the canopy of a Halmahera tree (right).

As would be expected when there is not sexual dimorphism, these species are monogamous and form pair bonds. This is quite unlike the promiscuous behavior of the rest of the family. Biochemical evidence (e.g., Sibley & Ahlquist 1990, Christidis & Schodde 1992, Nunn & Cracraft 1996, Cracraft & Feinstein 2000) shows that the manucode group are the only major lineage of birds-of-paradise that are a separate clade; they should probably be considered a subfamily of the Paradisaeidae. All the gorgeous, promiscuous BOPs are closely related, so much so that they may be better considered all the same genus. Under our current classification, there are many intergeneric hybrids known. This fact also suggests that all the famous BOPs are closely related despite their widely variable plumages.

New evidence, though, has clarified the status of some of the lesser known and more obscure species. Recent biochemical studies show that the three cnemophiline birds-of-paradise (genera Cnemophilus and Loboparadisea) are not closely related to BOPs at all (Cracraft & Feinstein 2000) and belong in their own family (Cnemophilidae). That same paper (Cracraft & Feinstein 2000) showed that "MacGregor's Bird-of-Paradise" Macgregoria pulchra was actually a giant honeyeater, close to Melipotes. That rather startling finding makes completely good sense to me — the bird was not like any other BOP. This means there are four fewer BOPs than had previously been thought. Frith & Beehler (1998), in their major review of this family, listed 42 biological species. [By contrast, Cracraft (1992) detailed about 90 "species" using the phylogenetic species concept.] I favor the biological species concept, so removing the 3 cnemophilines and MacGregor's leaves 38 BOPs in the Frith/Beehler review. Frith & Frith (2009) split the recently rediscovered Foja Parotia Parotia berlepschi as the 39th BOP.

All the traditional literature, and Sibley & Monroe (1990), included two species of Melampitta among the birds-of-paradise. These round-bodied, short-tailed, long-legged, ground-dwelling birds look rather like all-black ant-pittas. They are now assigned to their own family, the Melampittidae (Schodde & Christidis 2014).


Photos: The Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise Paradisaea raggiana was photographed by Simon Woolley & Julia Casson in Varirata NP, Papua New Guinea, on 1 July 2009. Arthur Singer painted the Blue Bird-of-Paradise Paradisaea rudolphi, from Birds of the World (1961) by Austin & Singer (Golden Press).Will Betz took the almost unbelievable photo of Carola's Parotia Parotia carolae in full display at 5500' elevation at Crater Mt. Wildlife Management Area, Papua New Guinea, in Oct 1997. Rob Hutchinson digitally captured the beautiful male Wilson's Bird-of-Paradise Cicinnurus respublica on Batanta I., West Papua, Indonesia, in May 2009. K. David Bishop photographed the displaying male King-of-Saxony Bird-of-Paradise Pteridophora alberti near Ambua Lodge, PNG, in Oct 2011. The displaying Lesser Bird-of-Paradise Paradisaea minor was photographed by Steve Wilson at Baiyer River Sanctuary, Papua New Guinea, on 25 Oct 1983. The two shots of Wallace's Standardwing Semioptera wallacii was at Foli, Halmahera, Indonesia, on 9 Oct 2011. Will Betz took the Black Sicklebill Epimachus meyeri photo at Crater Mt. WMA, PNG, in Oct 1997. Simon Woolley & Julia Casson graciously leant their photo of a female Brown Sicklebill Epimachus meyeri, Kwatu Lodge, PNG, during July 2009. Hans & Judy Beste captured on film the female and displaying male Victoria Riflebird Ptilornis victoriae at Julatten, Queensland, Australia, in 1983. Will Betz photographed the displaying Superb Bird-of-Paradise Lophorina superba in the Wandammen Mts., West Papua, Indonesia. The Paradise Crow Lycocorax pyrrhopterus was at Foli, Halmahera, Indonesia, in Oct 2011.

   All photos © D. Roberson,
except those © Will Betz, Rob Hutchinson, K. David Bishop, Simon Woolley & Julia Casson, Hans & Judy Beste, and Steve Wilson, who hold those copyrights; all used with permission, all rights reserved.

Family book: Rating
Frith, C.B., and B.M. Beehler. 1998. The Birds of Paradise. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.

This is a superb family book by two of the world's leading experts on the family. Both have studied BOPs in the field extensively, and this book is right up-to-the-minute on what is known about behavior and ecology. It is in the Oxford Press's Bird Families of the World series which is becoming far and away the best series of family books. This entry is a 600 page tome and outstanding in every way except one, which is why I give it 4 1/2 stars instead of 5: the plates (beautifully done by William Cooper) are painted in "field guide" style (a few have wonderfully mossy branches on which to perch). Perhaps it is just me, but I would much prefer individual full-page plates of each bird in situ, showing habitat and behavior, rather than static field guide poses on a white background. In that sense Cooper & Forshaw has better art. But this text is full of maps, sonograms, and line drawings of behavior, almost making up for this one small deficiency. Their taxonomic conclusions are a bit more conservative than many recent authors (e.g., they do not split the riflebirds into quite as many species as most), but the text does contain detailed justifications for their decisions.

Family book: Rating
Cooper, W.T., and J.M. Forshaw. 1977. The Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds. Collins, Sydney.

For its time, this was a great book. I have treasured it, and each of the spectacular full-page paintings of the birds and their habitat is etched in my memory. The text was about as good as one could get at the time, but it is now outdated. For several species, for example, it was said that the "display was unknown." This was the state of knowledge when I first visited New Guinea in 1983. There we watched (at Bruce Beehler's study site) the "unknown" display of Buff-tailed Sicklebill (a spectacular hanging-upside-down performance with machine gun calls), a behavior since formally described by Beehler (1987); likewise, the behavior and displays of Pale-billed Sicklebill, a completely mysterious bird according to this 1977 book, is now of record (Beehler & Beehler 1986). So one now enjoys this book for the artwork.

Literature cited:

Beehler, B.M. 1987. Ecology and behavior of the Buff-tailed Sicklebill (Paradisaeidae, Epimachus albertsii). Auk 104: 48-55.

Beehler, B.M., and C.H. Beehler. 1986. Observations on the ecology and behavior of the Pale-billed Sicklebill. Wilson Bull. 98: 505-515.

Beehler, B.M., T.K. Pratt, and D.A. Zimmerman. 1986. Birds of New Guinea. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Bock, W.J. 1963. Relationship between the birds of paradise and the bowerbirds. Condor 65:91-125.

Christidis, L., and R. Schodde. 1992. Relationships among the Birds-of-Paradise (Paradisaeidae) and Bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchidae), protein evidence. Australian Journal of Zoology 40: 343-353.

Christidis, L., and R. Schodde. 1993. Sexual selection for novel partners, a mechanism for accelerated morphological evolution in the birds-of-paradise (Paradisaeidae). Bull. Brit. Ornithol. Club 113:169-172.

Coates, B.J. 1990. The Birds of Papua New Guinea. Part II. Dove Publ., Ltd., Alderley, Australia.

Cracraft, J. 1992. The species of the birds-of-paradise (Paradisaeidae): applying the phylogenetic species concept to a complex pattern of diversification. Cladistics 8:1-43.

Cracraft, J., and J. Feinstein. 2000. What is not a bird of paradise? Molecular and morphological evidence places Macgregoria in the Meliphagidae and the Cnemophilinae near the base of the corvoid tree. Proc. R. Soc. London B. 267:233-241.

Frith, C.B., and D.W. Frith. 2009. Family Paradisaeidae (Birds of Paradise), pp. 404 –493 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D.A. Christie, eds). Vol. 14. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Gilliard, E.T. 1969. Birds of Paradise and Bowerbirds. London: Weindenfeld & Nicholson.

Nunn, G.B., and J. Cracraft. 1996. Phylogenetic relationships among the major lineages of the birds-of-paradise (Paradisaeidae) using mitochondrial DNA gene sequences. Molec. Phylog. Evol. 5: 445-459.

Schodde, R., and L. Christidis. 2014. Relicts from Tertiary Australasia: undescribed families and subfamilies of songbirds (Passeriformes) and their zoogeographic signal. Zootaxa 3786: 501-522.

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: a Study of Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.




  page created 6 May 1999, revised 27-30 Nov 2003, and revised again 20 Jan 2012, 31 Mar 2012, and 3 Jan 2016  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved