Wilson’s bird of paradise
Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
SPECIES BELONGING TO the birds-of-paradise family Paradisaeidae are decidedly the most beautiful birds in the world. So when you’re considered one of the most iconic members of this family, you’re doing pretty well for yourself.
But like an unattainable muse, the stunning Wilson’s bird-of-paradise (Cicinnurus respublica) from New Guinea remains one of the most poorly known species of the family.
Confined to the tiny islands of Waigeo and Batanta in the Raja Ampat, or ‘Four Kings’, archipelago off the west coast of the Bird’s Head Peninsula in West Papua, the Wilson’s bird-of-paradise is unmistakable with its bright crimson back, yellow cape, shimmering green chest, blue feet, and most of all, its remarkable turquoise crown.
This segmented cap isn’t feathered, but is actually a patch of bare skin, and together with the species’ spiralled twin tail feathers, plays a crucial role in its complex courtship displays.
Male birds of paradise the pretty ones
As with many birds-of-paradise, Wilson’s bird-of-paradise males alone carry this suite of striking colours, while the females are more plainly dressed in a light brown plumage with a darker blue crown.
To capture a female’s attention, a male will create an arena, or court, on the forest floor by clearing away leaves and other debris. Against this suitably plain background, he will perch in front of an interested female, flitting from one vertical sapling to another, as he calls, chatters, and buzzes at her, distorting his body shape in various ways by puffing up his iridescent plumage. He’ll flick his head, stretch his neck, and cock his tail and sometimes gape at her in an effort to win her affections.
While the species has been known since 1850, when it was named by Napoleon’s nephew Charles Lucien Bonaparte, after British ornithologist Edward Wilson, it’s so elusive that it took almost 150 years for its courtship displays to be recorded in the wild. This was achieved by none other than Sir David Attenborough, and he did it by scattering leaves in a male’s arena, prompting the fastidious individual to come out into the open, clear them away, and begin his elaborate dance.