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Cornell researcher documents colorful birds-of-paradise

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A male blue bird-of-paradise forages in Papua New Guinea. Ed Scholes and Tim Laman made 18 expeditions to Papua New Guinea to document birds-of-paradise in the wild. (AP Photo/Tim Laman, National Geographic) A male blue bird-of-paradise forages in Papua New Guinea. Ed Scholes and Tim Laman made 18 expeditions to Papua New Guinea to document birds-of-paradise in the wild. (AP Photo/Tim Laman, National Geographic)

By MARY ESCH | AP

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A coffee table book and documentary by a Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientist and a National Geographic photographer provide a rare glimpse of the extravagant plumage and bizarre courtship dances of the rainforest birds known as birds-of-paradise.

Cornell's Ed Scholes and photographer Tim Laman made 18 expeditions to the remote rainforests of New Guinea over eight years. Their goal was to document for the first time all 39 species of birds-of-paradise in the wild with photos, audio recordings and video.

"Identification of species of birds-of-paradise has been going on for a long time because they're so beautiful," Scholes said. "There's a good sampling of them in museums around the world from 19th century collectors who would go and shoot them or buy them from local people."

Most of the photographs of the birds were from captive birds in zoos. Photographing them in the wild is challenging because of the rugged, hard-to-access areas where they live, and because many of the courtship displays happen high in the treetops. Laman, an expert tree-climber, built platforms high in the rainforest to photograph those species.

Food is abundant and predators virtually non-existent in the New Guinea rainforest where birds-of-paradise evolved. So the main driving force for evolution was sexual selection, said Scholes, whose primary interest is evolutionary biology. The birds evolved with incredible colors and behaviors designed to attract mates.

Some can change instantly into a flared-skirt dancer or a bouncing blob with luminous, blinking color patches. Some have long, ribbon-like head feathers, or waving, wire-like feathers tipped with shiny disks.

"My favorite would probably be the superb bird-of-paradise," Scholes said. "I still look at it and find it too incredible to be true. The male transforms himself from a fairly recognizable black bird into something completely otherworldly, a black ovoid shape with what looks like two iridescent eye spots and a mouth — what I call a psychedelic smiley face."

Laman, who lives in Lexington, Mass., and maintains an academic affiliation with Harvard, where he got his doctorate in biology, said his favorite is the greater bird-of-paradise. The male is stunning: maroon with a silver iridescent crown, blue bill and a cascade of brilliant yellow display feathers at its flanks. But it's not the bird's beauty as much as its backstory that captivates Laman.

"We went to a remote place called the Aru Islands, where we were following in the footsteps of one of my real heroes, Alfred Russel Wallace," Laman said. "He was a contemporary of Darwin who in the 1850s was exploring this area of Indonesia. He's known for discovering the same theory of natural selection as Darwin, and writing to him about it."

Laman and Scholes put more than 2,000 video clips and many audio files of birds-of-paradise in the Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library. The collection is available online.

A documentary on the project will air Thursday evening on the National Geographic Channel.

Links:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Macaulay Library

National Geographic

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