Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/September 1874/Birds-of-Paradise
THE Birds-of-Paradise are a small, but renowned family. They received their name from the idea, entertained at one time, that they inhabited the region of the Mosaic paradise. They live in a small locality in Australasia, including Papua or New Guinea, and a few adjacent islands. They are not easily tamed and kept confined; and few have been brought alive from their native locality. Mr. Beale had one at Macao, China, that had been in captivity nine years; several have been kept at Amboyna, but very few have ever been carried to Europe, although specimens of the skins and prepared birds were taken there more than 300 years ago. Anthony Pigafetta, one of the companions of Magellan, first imported them into Europe in 1522.
In form and size they somewhat resemble our crow, or blue-jay; but some are smaller. They are usually included in the tribe of cone-bills, though their bills are quite slender for that group, and a little compressed. The bills are covered at the base with downy or velvety feathers, which extend over the nostrils: their wings are long and round; the tail consists of ten feathers, two of them, in some species, very long; legs and feet very long, large, and strong; outer toe longer than inner, and joined to the middle one toward the base; hind-toe very long; claws long and curved. But they are chiefly remarkable for the wonderful development of various parts of their plumage, and for the metallic splendor of its rich hues. The sides of the body, and sometimes of the head, neck, breast, or tail, are ornamented with lengthened, peculiarly developed, and showy feathers. Says Wood: "In all the species, the feathers glow with resplendent radiance; in nearly all there is some strange and altogether unique arrangement of the plumage; and, in many, the feathers are modified into plumes, ribbons, and streamers, that produce the most surprising and lovely effects." The plumage of the face, breast, and throat, is usually the richest in metallic tints, while other parts frequently have very beautiful and brilliant colors.
Their food consists of grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, and other insects; figs, the berries of various trees and shrubs; seeds, rice, and other kinds of grain. During the heat of the day they remain concealed in the woods, but, in the morning and evening, come forth to seek their food. Furious storms frequently bring them to the ground, when they are easily taken by the natives, who also shoot them with blunt arrows, or take them with a noose, likewise with bird-lime, or other glutinous substance, placed on the branches which they frequent. They sometimes stupefy them with cocculus indicus. Europeans shoot them with shot-guns. The natives formerly skinned the birds, cut off the legs and wings, and dried the skin on a stick. Later they took out the interior organs of the bird, cut off the legs, and smoked the birds with sulphur, or seared them inside with a hot iron; and, after being thoroughly dried, they put them in the hollow of a bamboo, to secure the plumage from injury. They are used by the natives, the Japanese, Chinese, East Indians, and Persians, for adorning the turbans of the men, the head-dresses of the women, and for various other purposes of ornament. The Chinese make imitations of these birds from the feathers of parrots and paroquets, to sell to strangers. The feathers were formerly, and are still, used very much as ostrich-feathers are. By their lightness and lustre, they are extremely well suited for the ornaments of dress, and are very highly prized. In Europe and America, at the present time, they are sought for with avidity, to adorn ladies' hats, etc. The birds and feathers for the European market are principally obtained at Batavia and Singapore, whither the natives of Celebes, and others, bring them from Papua and the
Arroo Islands. In India they derive much of their value from the miraculous virtues which the priests have ascribed to them, causing the creature that produced them to receive the title "Bird of God," Manuco-Dewata; from which Buffon coined the modern French name, Manucode. Dr. Forster suggests, but perhaps without reason, that this bird may have been the phœnix of antiquity.
During the dry weather of the northwestern monsoon, in our autumn and winter, many of the birds leave Papua and go west to the Arroo group; but, upon the commencement of the wet weather of the southeastern monsoon, in our spring, they immediately return to Papua. They usually fly, on these occasions, in flocks of thirty or forty, with a reputed leader. Their moulting-time is from May to August, during the southeastern monsoon. On account of the difficulty of managing their enormously-lengthened, gossamer-like plumage, they usually face the wind, whether flying or sitting. In proceeding from one place to another, they are often distressed by sudden shiftings of the wind; and, being unable to proceed in their flight against it, or go with safety before it, they are sometimes thrown to the ground. In tempestuous weather they seek the most sheltered retreats of the thickest woods. Although very active and sprightly, they are exceedingly shy and retiring in their habits. The false ideas that they were footless, lived ever on the wing, or occasionally rested suspended by the tail; fed on the dew; reared their young on the shoulders of the male, and came from the terrestrial paradise, have all had their day, but are too absurd to be more than alluded to now.
The Greater Paradise-Bird (Paradisea apoda), frequently called the Emerald Bird of Paradise, is smaller than the crow. Linnæus gave the specific name apoda to this bird, which was generally and erroneously called footless, to designate the species, not to perpetuate the error. This bird seeks the thickest foliage of the loftiest trees, in which to remain concealed during the day. The feathers on the head, throat, and neck, are very short and dense. Those round the base of the bill, and on the face, are velvety and black, changing their color to green, as the direction of the light changes; those on the throat, the front half of the neck, and the upper part of the breast, are of a bright, deep, emerald green; those on the head, back of the neck, and the shoulders, are of a light, golden yellow. The eye is at the common point between these colors. If lines were drawn from it to the throat, to the forehead, and down the sides of the neck, and curved to a point on the breast, they would indicate very well the limits of the colors. The back, wings, tail, and belly, are of a bright, reddish chestnut, the breast being a little darker, and inclining to purple. From each side beneath the wings proceed a large number of long, floating, graceful plumes, some eighteen inches in length, of exceeding delicacy of texture and appearance. These extend far beyond the tail-feathers, which are about six inches long, and "their translucent golden-white vanelets produce a most superb effect, as they cross and re-cross each other, forming every imaginable shade of white, gold, and orange, and then deepening toward their extremities into a soft, purplish red." From the upper part of the tail proceed two black shafts or filaments, some eighteen inches long, appearing like small wires, about one-sixteenth of an inch in diameter. The female has no floating plumes, no gem-like feathers, and no brilliant colors. The head is dark-brown; the neck, light-brown; the upper parts of the body, wings, and tail, reddish chestnut; the breast and belly, white.
In Bennett's "Wanderings" is an interesting description of Mr. Beale's bird, at Macao. The writer says: "This elegant creature has
a light, playful, and graceful manner, with an arch and impudent look; dances about when a visitor approaches the cage, and seems delighted at being made an object of admiration. Its notes are very peculiar, resembling the cawing of a raven; but its tones are, by far, more varied. It washes itself regularly, twice daily, and, after having performed its ablutions, throws its delicate feathers up, nearly over the head, the quills of which feathers have a peculiar structure, so as to enable the bird to effect this object. Its food, during confinement, is boiled rice, mixed up with soft eggs, together with plantains, and living insects of the grasshopper tribe; these insects, when thrown to him, the bird contrives to catch in his beak with great celerity; but, if, through failure to catch them, they should fall to the floor, he will not descend to them, appearing to be fearful that, in so doing, he would soil his delicate plumage; he will eat insects in a living state, but will not touch them when dead. One of the best opportunities of seeing this splendid bird, in all its beauty of actions, as well as display of plumage, is early in the morning, when he makes his toilet; the beautiful sub-alar plumage is then thrown out and cleaned from any spot that may sully its purity, by being passed gently through
the bill; the short, chocolate-colored wings are extended to the utmost, and he keeps them in a steady, flapping motion, as if in imitation of their use in flight, at the same time raising up the delicate, long feathers over the back, which are spread in a chaste and elegant manner, floating like films in the ambient air. In this position the bird would remain for a short time, seemingly proud of its heavenly beauty, and in raptures of delight with its most enchanting self; it will then assume various attitudes, so as to regard its plumage in every direction. Having completed his toilet, he utters the usual cawing notes, at the same time looking archly at the spectators, as if ready to receive all the admiration that it considers its elegant form and display of plumage demand. It then takes exercise by hopping in a rapid but graceful manner from one end of the upper perch to the other, and descends suddenly upon the second perch, close to the bars of the cage, looking out for the grasshoppers, which it is accustomed to receive about this time."
Vanity and egotism, as usually developed, are exceedingly offensive and distasteful; but when we see a delicate creature, so richly embellished, so neat and cleanly in its habits, so fastidious in its tastes, so scrupulously exact in its observances, and so winning in all its ways, as to etherealize the commonest actions, they become not only endurable, but amusing, and even enjoyable. And if a bird, in a state of hopeless captivity, exhibits such marked traits of character, acts out so truthfully the promptings of its nature, shows so evidently its desire to please, and possesses so nice an appreciation of being admired, how perfect must be all its ways and actions, as developed in the pure, bright air, fragrant groves, and luxuriant surroundings of its native haunts!
The Red Bird-of-Paradise (Paradisea rubra, Vieillot) is about as large as the preceding, and in many respects resembles it. The feathers on the head and neck are short and dense. Those around the bill, on the face, and top of the head, including the two crests, are velvety and black, appearing green when viewed in a different direction; those on the throat and front half of the neck are of a bright, deep green; those on the shoulders, upper wing-coverts, back of the neck, and across the upper part of the breast, are of a golden yellow. Lines drawn from the eye to the throat, to the back of the head, and down the sides of the neck, and curved to a point at its lower part in front, would nearly coincide with the limits of the colors. The wings, tail, and belly, are of a deep chocolate-brown; the breast being of a little darker color. From each side below the shoulder proceeds a tuft of loose, plumy feathers, about a foot long, of a beautiful, deep carmine color, slightly tipped with white. From the upper part of the tail arise two black, slender, ribbon-like shafts, about two feet long, and nearly one-fourth of an inch wide, without any web, and toward the end inclining to curl.
The King Bird-of-Paradise (Cicinnurus regius, Linnæus), called by the Papuans Saya, is about as large as the thrush; but the male bird has a tail so short as to give it a jaunty appearance. It is not fond of tall trees, but keeps mostly among the small bushes, seeking berries and other food. It is a solitary bird, and very beautiful. As it is sometimes found with other species of the same family, and yet keeps somewhat aloof from them, it was formerly supposed to be their leader. The head, neck, upper part of the breast, the back, wings, and tail, are all of a deep red or maroon color, the head inclining to orange, and the breast to a darker red. The belly is white. Across the chest there is a band of beautiful green feathers, that, in some directions, appear black. From each side beneath the shoulder arises a tuft of broad, truncated, light-gray feathers, or plumes, two or three inches
long, tipped with bright metallic green. From the middle of the tail or upper-tail coverts proceed two shafts or filaments, appearing like wires, about one-sixteenth of an inch thick, naked for about six inches, then having a bright, golden-green web on the inner side of each shaft to the end, each of which is there coiled outward in a spiral curve, so as to form a beautiful flat disk; the shaft extending nearly twice round the curve. This peculiarity gives to the bird its generic name, cicinnurus, meaning a tail with curled feathers: its supposed leadership gave to it its specific name. Most parts of the bird have an exceedingly brilliant, satin-like gloss. The female is of a dull-brown color above; gray, streaked with black, beneath; tinged with red on the wings; and has a tail about three inches long.
The Gold-breasted Bird-of-Paradise (Parotia sexpennis, Vieillot) has three long, slender shafts, or feathers, proceeding from each side of the head near the ear; they being without web, except the part near the outer end. These can be raised or lowered at pleasure, so as to stand out horizontally on each side of the head, or left to hang loosely backward. It has also a small crest. From each side beneath the shoulders arise massive black plumes, with a loose web, like that of ostrich-feathers. The general color of the bird is a deep, velvety black; the head, throat, and back, having a violet gloss; the wings and tail, black. The neck and breast have scale-like feathers of a brilliant, changeable green, edged with gold.
The Superb Bird-of-Paradise (Lophorina atra Vieillot) is distinguished for its black, velvety scapulary feathers, which are greatly developed so as to form a long, double tuft or plume, which it can raise at pleasure, so as to appear as a very large, double crest, or permit it to fall upon its back and sides. A tuft of feathers, also, hangs
from the breast, which spreads "into a doubly-pointed form, being of the most brilliant steely green, and glittering with gem-like radiance in the sunbeams. The general color of the bird's plumage is the deepest imaginable violet, appearing of a velvety blackness from its very intensity, and only flashing forth in the brighter hues as the light falls upon the edge of each feather. The back, hind neck, and head, are of a greenish-gold color, with a velvety appearance; the wings are a dull, deep black; the tail is black, with a blue gloss; the throat, changeable violet; and the belly, bright golden green."
Wallace's Bird-of-Paradise, or the standard-wing (Semioptera Wallacei, Gray) is a little larger than the American robin. The head, neck, back, wings, and tail, are all of a light brown or drab color; the belly, drab streaked or mottled with black. From the short feathers at the bend of each wing arise two white feathers or plumes, about six inches long, which the bird can raise and keep erect, or let fall upon the wing, at its pleasure. But the great beauty of the bird consists in its brilliant double tuft, proceeding from the breast and lower part of the neck, extending downward and obliquely outward, and terminating in two points about four inches apart. This tuft is of a bright, metallic green, changing into blue, violet, or black, according to the direction of the light; it is exquisitely beautiful in itself, and its beauty is increased, if possible, by the striking contrast with the otherwise dull color of the bird. The legs and feet are of a color. The female is wholly of a drab-color, without tuft or wing-shafts.
The Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise (Diphyllodes speciosa, Boddaert) is about as large as a thrush. The head, back, tail, and primary wing-feathers, are dark-brown; the other wing-feathers, yellowish-brown. The breast and belly are of a beautiful purplish green. A circular tuft extends over the hind-neck and shoulders, and is, in the upper part, light yellow, and in the lower parts brown; this double tuft, on account of its resemblance to leaves, gives to the bird its generic name. The tail is about two inches long, and from its upper part arise two thread-like feathers about ten inches in length, each coiled in a circle about three inches in diameter. The shafts of these feathers have, on one side, a narrow web about one-sixteenth of an inch wide, of a beautiful green or violet tint, according to the direction of the light.
The Long-tailed Paradise-Bird (Epimachus magnus) has a tail more than two feet long. It is sometimes called the Superb Plume-Bird, and, with the next species, is included in the same family as the hoopoes. It is a native of New Guinea, and is a most beautiful and lovely creature. Lesson says: "To add to the singularity of this bird, Nature has placed above and below its wings feathers of an extraordinary form, and such as one does not see in other birds; she seems, moreover, to have pleased herself in painting this being, already so singular, with her most brilliant colors. The head, neck, and belly, are glittering green; the feathers which cover these parts possess the lustre and softness of velvet to the eye and touch; the back is changeable violet; the wings are of the same color, and appear, according to the lights in which they are held, blue, violet, or deep black, always, however, imitating velvet. The tail is composed of twelve feathers; the two middle feathers are the longest, and the lateral feathers gradually diminish; it is violet or changeable blue above, and black beneath. The feathers which compose it are as wide in proportion as they are long, and shine both above and below with the brilliancy of polished metal. Above the wings, the scapularies are very long and singularly formed; their points being very short
on one side, and very long on the other. These feathers are of the color of polished steel, changing into blue, terminated by a large spot of brilliant green. From each side beneath the shoulders spring long, curved feathers, directed upward; these are black on the inside, and brilliant green on the outside. The bill and feet are black."
The Twelve-wired Paradise-Bird, sometimes called the Twelve-thread Epimachus, or Plume-Bird (Seleucides alba, Lesson), is a little larger than the jay. It has an elongated body, ample, concave wings, a black beak about two inches, and a tail three inches long; the legs and feet are of a pink-color, it is a native of New Guinea, and is fully as beautiful and lovely as the preceding species. All its plumage has a soft, velvety appearance. The head, neck, and breast, appear black. Across the breast, and on the shoulders, is a circular tuft of black feathers, two or three inches long; those on the sides
of the neck being, at the end, of a metallic green. The wings are of a rich violet, with a brilliant lustre, in some directions appearing intensely black. From each side beneath the wings proceed a number of silken, snow-white plumes, whose loose, downy vanelets, are gracefully waved by the gentlest breeze. The contrast between the general velvety or lustrous blackness of the bird and the snowy whiteness of these delicate plumes is exceedingly striking, and produces a most pleasing effect. These plumes are about six inches long; and six of the shafts, on each side, are prolonged about ten inches beyond the extremity of the web, and there appear like black threads or wires, giving to the bird its common name. The parts of these shafts which bear the web are pure white, as well as the web. The feathers of the Plume-Birds are taken to Europe, and used as an ornamental part of dress for ladies.
On the upper floor of the old Arsenal Building (which is open to the public the last four days in the week), in Central Park, New York City, there are several prepared specimens of Birds-of-Paradise, including five Great Birds, three Red Birds, four King-Birds, four Wallace's Birds, one Magnificent Bird, and one Twelve-wired Bird. These specimens will give, to any one who can examine them, a better idea of the size, form, color, and general appearance of the birds; the metallic lustre, change of color, and delicate structure of their plumage, than any words or engravings can convey. They would furnish a definite outline that would much assist and guide the imagination in giving life to their forms, spirit to their actions, and reality to their finer traits of character, as developed in their native islands. But still all lifeless forms fail to come up to the living birds in a state of freedom. And we need not be surprised at the enthusiasm of the amateur, who observes them in all their freshness and beauty, sitting in the aromatic trees, feeding among the bushes, floating in the breeze on their gossamer-like plumes, or glancing through the groves like streaming meteors, in the exhilarating atmosphere of their own genial clime.