BIRDS OF PARADISE, a group of passerine birds inhabiting New Guinea and the adjacent islands, so named by the Dutch voyagers in allusion to the brilliancy of their plumage, and to the current belief that, possessing neither wings nor feet, they passed their lives in the air, sustained on their ample plumes, resting only at long intervals suspended from the branches of lofty trees by the wire-like feathers of the tail, and drawing their food "from the dews of heaven and the nectar of flowers." Such stories obtained credence from the fact that so late as the year 1760, when Linnaeus named the principal species apoda, or "footless," no perfect specimen had been seen in Europe, the natives who sold the skins to coast traders invariably depriving them of feet and wings. The birds now usually included under this name belong to the family Paradiseidae, closely allied to the crows. The largest is the great emerald bird (Paradisea apoda), about the size of the common jay. Its head and neck are covered with short thick-set feathers, resembling velvet pile, of a bright straw colour above, and a brilliant emerald green beneath. From under the shoulders on each side springs a dense tuft of goldenorange plumes, about 2 ft. in length, which the bird can raise at pleasure, so as to enclose the greater part of its body. The two centre tail feathers attain a length of 34 in., and, being destitute of webs, have a thin wire-like appearance. This splendid plumage, however, belongs only to the adult males, the females being exceedingly plain birds of a nearly uniform dusky brown colour, and possessing neither plumes nor lengthened tail feathers. The young males at first resemble the females, and it is only after the fourth moulting, according to A. R. Wallace, who has studied those birds in their native haunts, that they assume the perfect plumage of their sex, which, however, they retain permanently afterwards, and not during the breeding season only as was formerly supposed. At that season the males assemble, in numbers varying from twelve to twenty, on certain trees, and there disport themselves, so as to display their magnificent plumes in presence of the females. Wallace in his Malay Archipelago, vol. ii., thus describes the attitude of the male birds at one of those "sacaleli," or dancing parties, as the natives call them; "their wings," he says, "are raised vertically over the back, the head is bent down and stretched out, and the long plumes are raised up and expanded till they form two magnificent golden fans striped with deep red at the base, and fading off into the pale brown tint of the finely-divided and softly-waving points; the whole bird is then overshadowed by them, the crouching body, yellow head, and emerald green throat, forming but the foundation and setting to the golden glory which waves above." It is at this season that those birds are chiefly captured. The bird-catcher having found a tree thus selected for a "dancing party," builds a hut among the lower branches in which to conceal himself. As soon as the male birds have begun their graceful antics, he shoots them, one after the other, with blunt arrows, for the purpose of stunning and bringing them to the ground without drawing blood, which would injure their plumage; and so eager are those birds in their courtship that almost all the males are thus brought down before the danger is perceived. The natives in preparing the skins remove both feet and wings, so as to give more prominence to the commercially valuable tuft of plumes. They also remove the skull, and the skin is then dried in a smoky hut. The great emerald bird, so far as yet known, is only found in the Aru Islands. The lesser bird of paradise (Paradisea minor), though smaller in size and somewhat less brilliant in plumage, in other respects closely resembles the preceding species. It is also more common, and much more widely distributed, being found throughout New Guinea and the neighbouring islands. Its plumes are those most generally used as ornaments for ladies' head-dresses. Both species are omnivorous, feeding voraciously on fruits and insects. They are strong, active birds, and are believed to be polygamous. The king bird of paradise (Cicinnurus regius) is one of the smallest and most brilliant of the group, and is specially distinguished by its two middle tail feathers, the ends of which alone are webbed, and coiled into a beautiful spiral disk of a lovely emerald green. In the red bird of paradise (Paradisea rubra) the same feathers are greatly elongated and destitute of webs, but differ from those in the other species, in being flattened out like ribbons. They are only found in the small island of Waigiu off the coast of New Guinea. Of the long-billed paradise birds the most remarkable is that known as the "twelve-wired" (Seleucides alba), its delicate yellow plumes, twelve of which are transformed into wire-like bristles. nearly a foot long, affording a striking contrast to the dark metallic tints of the rest of its plumage. (A. N.)
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