Bird Families

The most unusual birds of paradise

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How many species of birds are known that live on our planet at the present time? For an answer to this question, you can turn to numerous reference books, specialized sites, experts on the fauna of the world's birds, and finally, look at Wikipedia. and everywhere there will be either approximate or differing data. You will not find a more accurate answer than “about 10-odd thousand”. The struggle of the human thirst for knowledge with the countless uncertainties that reign in our environment is far from complete even here, within the class of vertebrates with the world's most well-studied diversity.

Nevertheless, to this day, many dozens of "species" with an undefined status are kept in museum collections around the world, which have not received close attention of specialists and are still awaiting research using advanced technologies. One of them attracts special attention with the magnificence and pretentiousness of its appearance. This is Bensbach's bird of paradise (Janthothorax bensbachi), known from a single specimen, mined before 1894 in the Arfak mountains (see Arfak mountains) in the north-west of the island of New Guinea. The specimen was donated to the Leiden Museum Naturalis by Jacob Bensbach, a Dutch resident in Ternal, and was named after him by the Swedish zoologist Johann Büttikofer. A unique specimen is the carcass of a male bird of paradise with a chocolate-brown and bluish-black body color and feathers on the head shining with a blue and green metallic sheen. Of particular interest are the genus typical for male birds Paradisaea long decorating feathers on the sides of the body, having the same dark brown color, and sparkling metallic green central tail feathers, about twice the length of the other tail feathers. Some feathers, in particular, those covering the wings, bear ocher-brown marks, which may indicate the incomplete transition of the bird to the adult outfit.

Bensbach's bird of paradise holotype. Photo © Leon van der Linden from his facebook.com page

In 1930, German zoologist Erwin Stresemann put forward a hypothesis that has become the generally accepted consensus up to the present: an unusual bird from the Arfak Mountains was a hybrid between a small (Paradisaea minor) and the magnificent shield-bearing (Ptiloris magnificus) birds of paradise. This decision perfectly explains the extreme rarity of birds with a similar phenotype and, at first glance, looks quite justified from the point of view of the morphology of the proposed hybrid. However, close examination of the color patterns of the likely parental species raises many new questions. Where does Bensbach's bird of paradise get its shiny feathers all over the top of its head? Is it permissible for a hybrid to completely disappear from the sharp lower border of the glittering breastplate of the shield-bearing bird of paradise? Could the metallic shiny central tail of birds of the genus Ptiloris when mixed with the tough, highly elongated, wire-like feathers of the Little Bird of Paradise, to give narrow, shiny "ribbons" - in fact, a new, third form of feathers? These and other questions still prevent many specialists in tropical avifauna from coming to terms with the "hybrid theory". One of them is Errol Fuller, a British writer and expert on the recently extinct animals.

A small and magnificent shield-bearing bird of paradise, according to the Stresemann hybrid theory, the alleged parents of Bensbach's bird of paradise. Photo © K. S. Kong from pinterest.com and Alwyn Simple from flickr.com

The final answer to the question of the status of Bensbach's bird of paradise can be provided by a comparative analysis of the DNA of the museum carcass and the alleged parental species. The same procedure, relatively simple by modern standards, could clarify the situation with a number of other "hybrid" birds of paradise, which a century ago were hunted in fair numbers, but now stubbornly hide from the eyes and lenses of numerous researchers of the fauna of New Guinea. In general, representatives of this family are well known for their species-specific mating rituals, seemingly designed to be reliable barriers to hybridization (see The Psychedelic Smile of a Bird of Paradise, "Elements", 04/04/2016).An unusually large number of described hybrid forms within this group is combined with the complete absence of species that have become extinct over the past several hundred years against the background of many years of pursuit of birds for feathers and skins. The current situation can be both a consequence of a number of objective factors of the ecology of birds and their environment, and the result of a lack of studies of already available materials.

Bensbach's bird of paradise. Image © J. G. Keulemans from zafirovbiology.wordpress.com

"Hybrid" birds of paradise - this is just one of nature's puzzles, which are diverse and sometimes do not have unambiguous solutions. This is especially true of taxonomy, because there is still no clear and generally accepted concept of the species. For example, how to interpret the most common crows in Northern Eurasia - as a single species, as a gray and black raven, or as a gray and two types of black? Red-bellied pitta (Erythropitta erythrogaster) - a species or a complex of 12 separate species, as postulated by the new version of the lists of birds of the world from HBW? The Big Nicobar Island Shepherd is a subspecies of the Andaman shepherdess (Rallina canningi) or is it still a new, not yet described species? Different ornithological organizations and different taxonomists solve such particular issues in their own way.

One of the factors that add a headache to taxonomists in counting valid species and subspecies are taxa known from single skins, carcasses, or stuffed animals, often centuries old or older. At first glance, unlike any other birds, as a rule, they promptly receive official species names from scientists. However, due to the lack of new finds, ornithologists most often in one way or another take the dubious bird out of the list of species that can be studied in the field. Such copies are most often recognized, and as a result of careful checks, they often turn out to be among one of the following options:

1) really "good", valid, but in fact recently extinct species. For example, such were the Liverpool pigeon (Caloenas maculata) and the finch Hawaiian flower girl Munro (Dysmorodrepanis munroi),
2) previously unknown more or less stable morphs or single mutations of other well-known species - for example, recently demoted from the list of valid species, an extremely rare forelock bunting (Sporophila melanops),
3) interspecific, and sometimes intergeneric hybrids - such as the Cox sandpiper (Calidris paramelanotos) - possessing, as a rule, extremely rich polymorphism.

However, it is possible that when molecular taxa finally get their hands on all the controversial taxa known from a single specimen, many of them will once again change their status.

Pennant bird of paradise

Body size can reach 28 centimeters. The feathers on the back of the males are colored purple, and the chest is emerald green. But females are inferior in body size to males, but they have a longer tail and they have olive-brown feathers. This bird of paradise species is unique in that it has long white feathers on its wings.

Pennant birds of paradise are common in the east of Indonesia, in the Moluccas.

They feed on arthropods and fruits. The male in the mating season, in order to attract the attention of the female, performs various performances in flight and, spreading both wings, shows a bright color of the chest.

Royal bird of paradise

Royal bird of paradise

She lives in New Guinea and on the islands of Aru, Salvatti. Birds of this genus mainly eat the fruits of plants, and sometimes also feed on invertebrates.

The royal birds of paradise have blue legs and red backs. There are round black spots above the eyes, and two thin "antennae" with semicircular feathers at the end emanate from the tail.

Because of their bright feathers, these beautiful birds were the target of the hunt. Their feathers and skins were sent to Europe to decorate women's clothing.

Magnificent shield-bearing bird of paradise

Magnificent shield-bearing bird of paradise

The body reaches 34 centimeters in length.Males have blue and green breasts and tail. Females are colored brown with black dots and lines on the abdomen.

They feed on fruits and insects.

When the mating season comes, the male performs a special dance and if he manages to attract the opposite sex, then short pairs are formed. After mating, the males fly away and do not participate in the life of their children: the female builds the nest herself, incubates the eggs and feeds the chicks.

Big bird of paradise

Big bird of paradise

This is the largest bird of the genus of "birds of paradise" - the length of the body in the male can reach 43 centimeters, and in the female no more than 35 centimeters.

This species is common in forest areas in the southwest of New Guinea and on the Aru Islands.

Like many birds of paradise, they feed on fruits, seeds and small insects.

Scaled bird of paradise

Scaled bird of paradise

Scaly birds of paradise live only in the forests of New Guinea. They feed mainly on fruits, less often on insects.

It's amazing how females and males of the same species can differ from each other: only males have decorations, and females do not have bright colors and feathers that attract beauty. You can even make a mistake and attribute the female to a completely different species.

Females are mostly brown, while males are yellow and black. And even the males have long feathers above the eyes, similar to scales. These "eyebrows" can reach half a meter, which is twice the length of the birds themselves!

Only the female takes care of the offspring. She builds a nest on her own, incubates one egg for 22 days and takes care of the chick for the same amount of time until he learns to fly.

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