Colours of heaven

An Indian team of birders braves the swampy and mountainous terrain of Papua New Guinea to photograph the birds of paradise, in particular the spectacular Raggiana.

Published : May 08, 2019 12:30 IST

Raggiana bird of paradise.

Raggiana bird of paradise.

They are birds with dramatic tails, intricate feather ornamentations and extravagant colours. A few are bizarre looking, with strange body shapes. Some have quills on their forehead. Others have tactile wires on their bodies like antennae of robots. Yet, their colour patterns and the artistic perfection of the feather designs have an incredible aesthetic appeal.

They are the birds of paradise. They inhabit the still unexplored and dense forests of Papua New Guinea, an oceanian country north of Australia in the Pacific Ocean. David Attenborough, the celebrated film-maker, said in Life on Earth : “It is difficult to know which bird has more spectacular plumage. Watching such birds display their ornamentations is one of the most thrilling and heart-stopping experiences the bird world has to offer.”

More than 30 birds of paradise are endemic to Papua New Guinea, which is the eastern part of the island of New Guinea. The western part of the island is West Papua, an Indonesian territory. Three species of the bird can be found in Australia and one or two in Moluccas, Indonesia.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the legendary British adventurer, explorer and biologist and a contemporary of Charles Darwin, presents an authentic and meticulous survey of the flora and fauna of the region, including Papua New Guinea, in his book Malay Archipelago , published in 1861. About the birds of paradise he observed: “I look with intense interest on these rugged mountains retreating ridge behind ridge into the interiors where the foot of civilised men had never trod. There was the country of the Cassowary and the tree Kangaroo and these dark forests provided the most extraordinary and most beautiful of the feathered inhabitants of the earth, varied species of the birds of paradise.”

Bruce Beehler, a birds of paradise expert who has spent around 35 years in New Guinea and is currently a research associate in the Bird Division of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, Washington, United States, says in an article on birds of paradise: “Charles Darwin had remarked on the plumes of the male bird and the evolution of specialised plumes. It continues to interest evolutionary biologists. Since the past 25 years, a new generation of investigators, armed with fresh insights from socio-biology and behavioral ecology has learnt much about social organisation in the birds-of-paradise.”

In an email to this writer, he said: “Rene Lesson (1794-1849) was the first Western naturalist to wander in New Guinea to observe the bird. He was a French medical doctor, naturalist and ornithologist. He had served the French Navy during the Napoleonic Wars in 1811. He observed that the birds of paradise were indeed bizarre. Their habitats were so remote. There are laws in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea to protect them. But enforcement is rather lax. Both areas have logging operations, oil palm cultivation and mining. That causes serious disturbances to some of the areas. The spectacular plumes seem to be a product of extreme sexual selection caused by skewed mating.”

Birders from all over the world visit Papua New Guinea to see the birds of paradise. An Indian birding team, led by Sabu Kinattukara, a prominent birder based in Kochi, Kerala, visited the country in July 2018. Eight members of the team were from Kerala and one was from Tamil Nadu. All of them were widely travelled birders, but it was their first visit to Papua New Guinea. Sabu had earlier led an international team of birders to remote birding spots in Papua New Guinea (see “On the trail of the bowerbird”, Frontline , March 1, 2019).

There are around 800 species of birds in Papua New Guinea. There are more than 800 tribal groups as well, with an equal number of tribal languages, which lack a written script. The Portuguese colonised the country in 1562 and were soon followed by the British, the Dutch and the Australians. In 1975, Papua New Guinea got its independence from Australia.

Papua New Guinea’s terrain is mountainous and rugged and some of the birding spots can be at an altitude of 16,000 feet. In other places, it is swampy and muddy and infested with mosquitoes. It is not connected by vehicular traffic. Hence, nerve-racking treks are the only way to observe these birds, which are located at different altitudes.

Sabu had briefed all the members before leaving for Papua New Guinea on the conditions prevailing there. The tribes may consider the birders as trespassers. Sometimes, anti-social elements may create problems for tourists in the capital city, Port Moresby, and the police will not interfere. But, usually the armed guards accompanying the birders “sort out” such problems. The Indian team trekked to prime birding spots, including the Varirata National Park and Mt Hagen. All the trees in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea had fruits in plenty. The guide accompanying the team said that even if a thousand birds should flock in to eat the fruits, an incredible quantity of them would still be left. As David Attenborough says: “New Guinea is indeed a paradise for birds. There are no monkeys to grab the fruit, no squirrels to gnaw the nuts, no large mammalian carnivores either, so a male bird is not dangerously encountered if he develops huge plumes, nor is it risky for him to dance.”

It was the Raggiana bird of paradise, iconic among the birds of paradise and the national bird of Papua New Guinea, that amazed the team with its flamboyant courtship display. The male bird perches on a tree, spreading his plumes that heave like waves in the sky. The bird has the exquisite dancing moves of a ballerina. The much smaller female watches the performace of the male, and only if she likes it will mating happen. After mating, the female bird builds a nest, lays her eggs and rears the chicks. Apart from the Raggiana, some of the other colourful and captivating birds of paradise are the blue bird of paradise, the Wilson’s bird of paradise, the greater bird of paradise, the king bird of paradise, the lesser bird of paradise, the western parotia, the king of Saxony bird of paradise, the black-billed sicklebill, the super bird of paradise, the Vogelkop superb bird of paradise and the ribbon-tailed astrapia.

The Vogelkop superb bird of paradise is found in West Papua, Indonesia. In July 2018, before joining the Indian team, Jainy Kuriakose was able to photograph the bird in the Arfak Mountains. It is one of the areas in Indonesia that has a rich avifauna, but the terrain is hard and challenging. “I spent six days there looking for the bird. I had to sit in a hide without moving. One day I saw the bird when it was drizzling. It was one of the most astounding sights I have seen,” said Jainy (see “In search of exotic birds”, Frontline , September 15, 2017).

Spotting the different species of birds was an enthralling experience for the team in Papua New Guinea. The presence of the birds of paradise made them forget all the weariness and the hazards of trekking for long hours. “The stillness of the forest would be broken when the birds call, which would echo around the forest. It was an experience of unique emotional intensity,” said Dr Nigil Haroon, a medical practitioner in Toronto, Canada.

Incredible research work on the birds of paradise has been done recently by two biologists, Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the U.S. They were able to locate and photograph 39 species of birds of paradise in New Guinea alone. Laman is an internationally acclaimed wildlife biologist and photographer, and Scholes is an acclaimed field biologist. They started the project in 2004 and completed it in 2011. They made a total of 18 expeditions to some of the most remote islands. Their work, Birds of Paradise , has incredible photographs. They were inspired by Alfred Russel Wallace and paid eloquent tributes to him in the book. “To the Europeans’ minds, the ethereal birds must have come from the biblical garden of Eden,” they write.

G. Shaheed is the Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi , Kochi.

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