Jewels of the Jungle: Birds-of-Paradise

“It’s difficult not to be enchanted by the birds-of-paradise. They’re some of the most extraordinary birds in the world,” commented Ch’ien Lee, accomplished biologist and professional photographer.

With 42 unique species, ranging in size from the King Bird-of-paradise at 5.9 inches tall to the Curl-crested Manucode at 17 inches, the diversity in their extravagant plumage is astonishing, often including highly elongated and elaborate feathers extending from the beak, wings, tail or head in all colors of the rainbow.

Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-paradise (Lophorina niedda)
Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-paradise (Lophorina niedda)

Part of the reason for their incredible vibrance is due to the deep black feathers which make their colors pop. Ch’ien also stated that a recent study found these black feathers have a unique nanostructure that is super-efficient at light absorption. This results in one of the darkest blacks found in nature, rivaling those of highly specialized synthetic materials.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this stunning diversity is thanks to the combination of the millions of years of isolation provided by the complex geologic history of New Guinea and the species’ intense sexual selection. 

As with most bird species, the brightest and most resplendently decked-out individuals are male. Interestingly, the variation between male and female plumage is directly related to breeding habits. The more socially monogamous a species is, the more similar the sexes’ appearances, while the polygamous species have notable sexual dimorphism. But almost all birds-of-paradise are known for their elaborate mating rituals.

Magnificent Bird-of-paradise (Diphyllodes magnificus)
Magnificent Bird-of-paradise (Diphyllodes magnificus), male calling from his display ground, showing the bright yellow inside of his mouth.

In his blog, Ch’ien recounts his remarkable encounters with a particularly elusive species, the Wallace’s Standardwing, on the Indonesian island of Halmahera:

“I will never forget the first morning I spent at a Standardwing lek watching these avian acrobats and listening to their raucous calling. Within the confines of a single small tree crown several male birds had partitioned certain branches as their personal display territories, with younger or less dominant males nearby in other trees. Upon the approach of a female bird, the males would begin their frantic actions, calling loudly and putting on an incredible display which consisted raising four long white plumes on their shoulders and simultaneously expanding brilliant metallic blue breast shields whilst lightly fluttering their outstretched wings. Occasionally a bird would fly straight up several meters and slowly parachute back down to his chosen branch. The visiting female would take her time to select the male she was most impressed with, mate with him and then disappear off into the forest.”

Ch’ien leads two expeditions with StraitsJourneys. One guides participants on photographing Creatures of the Night in Sarawak, Malaysia and the other on Birds of Paradise in Indonesian Papua.


StraitsJourneys is a place for travelers to find and book deep travel experiences tailored to specific interests. The experiences are presented by carefully selected local experts. Click here to register your interest in StraitsJourneys and be the first to receive our stories, updates and offers.

An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.

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