by Kay Charter –
Eight thousand miles from Northern Michigan, resting between the top of Australia and the Equator in the far western region of the Pacific Ocean is the long island chain of New Guinea. The eastern portion (including half of the largest of the islands) comprises the independent nation of Papua New Guinea. This chain is home to the majority of a family of birds many consider to be the most spectacular and beautiful in the world, rightly known as birds of paradise. There are more than three dozen species in this family, most distinguished by brightly colored plumage on the males. Many males also sport vibrant feathered ruffs or elongated feathers known as wires or streamers. Some have enormous head plumes, breast shields or head fans. These vivid colors and ornamental feathers are used in elaborate courtship displays.
At first glance, no Michigan bird resembles any of these spectacular tropical species, but there actually are similarities between the superb bird of paradise and our own red-winged blackbirds. For both species, non-breeding males are relatively plain black birds. But when it’s time to go courting, males of each species show off their brilliant plumages. The superb bird of paradise, like most members of this remarkable family, engages in a fantastic courtship ritual. After preparing a small clearing on the forest floor by carrying away detritus and sweeping the ground with leaves, he first attracts a potential mate with a loud call. When a female approaches, his feather cape and blue-green breast shield spring up and spread around his head, transforming him into a brightly colored elliptical-shaped creature as he hops around the female, snapping his tail feathers against the ground.
Many people don’t think of red-winged blackbirds as spectacular, but when they puff up those scarlet and yellow shoulder patches during the breeding season, they are pretty impressive. Their territory is a significant area carved out of a cattail wetland rather than a small stage on the forest floor. When defending that territory, red-winged males show off their bright red epaulets and raise their wings in a way that makes them appear twice their normal size.
Both species are polygamous, but only the red-winged blackbirds hang around to protect their mates, defend the nests and help feed young. Superb bird of paradise males breed with every female that accepts their advances (since there are far more males than females, that may not be many), but they take no part in building or defending the nest or feeding young. Other similarities include much plainer reddish-brown females and a varied diet of insects, fruits, and seeds.
Few, if any, Michigan residents will ever see a bird of paradise in its natural habitat. But we can learn much about this remarkable family thanks to a National Geographic exhibition. Beginning June 16th, Dennos Museum in Traverse City is hosting this exhibition. There we can see films of displaying birds of paradise and we can engage in interactive displays about the birds. Saving Birds Thru Habitat was invited to partner in this exhibition in a series of programs entitled “Sundays Are For The Birds.” Our programs will be held on June 30, July 21, Aug. 11, 18 and 25. On Saturday, Sept. 8, our friend Greg Butcher, Migratory Species Coordinator for Forest Service International, a division of the US Forest Service, will present “Michigan’s Tropical Connections,” a program about birds that nest in Michigan and winter in the Tropics.
Kay Charter is executive director of Saving Birds Thru Habitat, an organization that teaches people how to help migrating birds whose populations are declining. Please click here for a complete calendar of events.