Birds-of-paradise: encountered in passing, on the street


I love seeing tetrapod-themed art, especially in unexpected places. While in London recently I noticed this 'tropical bird' painting on a piece of wooden boarding, erected to conceal building work. As you can see (larger version below), the work is mostly a brilliant montage of birds-of-paradise (properly Paradisaeidae), the remarkable resplendent "rainforest crows in fancy dress"* of New Guinea and its surrounds.

* Sherman Suter, 1998.

I'd prefer it if it was birds-of-paradise only, but it also features a few parrots (right at the top) and a Great blue turaco Corythaeola cristata too. The parrot at the very top of the image is hypothetical, but there's a White-naped lory Lorius albidinuchus at top left (though without the characteristic white nape... and with green, instead of red, leg feathers). There's a mystery passerine in the image, too, but I'll leave you experts to work that one out.


Various of the 'classic' birds-of-paradise are shown, like Wilson's bird-of-paradise Cicinnurus respublica (upper middle and middle), King bird-of-paradise C. regius (middle), Ribbon-tailed bird-of-paradise Astrapia mayeri (upper left and lower right), Twelve-wired bird-of-paradise Seleucidis melanoleuca (lower left), King of Saxony bird-of-paradise Pteridophora alberti (upper left and middle right, and shown below in painting by Richard Bowdler Sharpe), Raggiana bird-of-paradise Paradisaea raggiana (middle right), Lesser bird-of-paradise P. minor (lower left) and, my favourite, Blue bird-of-paradise P. rudolphi (bottom). The Blue bird-of-paradise is the one that's famous for hanging upside-down during display while making an unearthly metallic throbbing noise.


The mostly black bird with prominent yellow facial wattles (shown at upper and lower middle, and see detail below) is Macgregoria pulchra, formerly known as Macgregor's bird-of-paradise. However, Cracraft & Feinstein (2000) argued that it isn't a bird-of-paradise at all but actually a honeyeater (Meliphagidae). In accordance, it's increasingly known as either Macgregor's honeyeater or as the Ochre-winged honeyeater.

This isn't the only species recently removed from Paradisaeidae. The satinbirds or cnemophilines now seem not to be birds-of-paradise either, but actually close relatives of berrypeckers and longbills (Melanocharitidae). The melampittas - historically linked with logrunners (Orthonychidae) but stated emphatically to be birds-of-paradise by some authors (Sibley & Ahlquist 1987) - are perhaps, actually, monarch flycatchers (Monarchidae) (Jønsson & Fjeldså 2006). Oh, and I can't mention melampittas without noting the fact that the strangely stiffened remiges and rectrices of the Greater melampitta Melampitta gigantea are hypothesised to be an adaptation for roosting inside limestone caves (Diamond 1983). The rachis actually projects a few millimetres beyond the end of the vane (even in fresh, unworn feathers) and wear results in conspicuous asymmetry at the vane tips. I should have mentioned this in the article on behavioural feather modification. And, dammit, the presence in melampittas of short bony spurs on the wrist should have been mentioned in the series on clubs, spurs, spikes and claws on bird wings.


You might wonder why birds like Macgregoria and the melampittas were included within Paradisaeidae when modern studies have found them to be nothing of the sort. Remember that many species are simply placed in a given taxonomic group because, historically, it has 'seemed about right', not because specific, detailed analysis has confirmed the close alliance of the species concerned with the undoubted 'core' members of the group in question. I've covered this sort of thing a few times before (go here and here for discussions of this phenomenon as seen in colubrid snakes).

It goes without saying that the approximately 40 bird-of-paradise species are a fascinating lot and I'm not about to do justice to them here. They're remarkable not only for the flamboyant display plumage and massive sexual dimorphism present in many (though not all) species, but also for their incredible vocal displays and feeding specialisations. They're very obviously 'core corvoids', close to such groups as cuckoo-shrikes, wood-swallows, vireos, orioles, vangas, drongos, corvids and shrikes. In fact some phylogenies find them to be closest to shrikes (Laniidae) and mudnesters (Corcoracidae or, more properly, Struthideidae) (e.g., Irestedt et al. 2008); other find them closest to crows (e.g., Cracraft & Feinstein 2000, Barker et al. 2004).

A large number of hybrids are on record, but at least some so-called hybrids have been argued to not be hybrids at all, but actually the sole representatives of possibly distinct (and now perhaps extinct) species. If that sounds like something you'd like to hear more about then you should definitely get hold of Errol Fuller's very well illustrated book The Lost Birds of Paradise.


The classic modern volume on birds-of-paradise is Clifford Frith and Bruce Beehler's Birds of Paradise: Paradisaeidae (Bird Families of the World) (Oxford University Press, 1998). Like a lot of those comprehensive, weighty 'bird families of the world'-type books, it's prohibitively expensive; even used copies don't sell for cheaper than £100 (USA$161). On that note, I'll stop here. These are but preliminary thoughts on this group... as usual I was planning to do nothing more than say "oooh, look, interesting street-art". But I failed.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on birds-of-paradise and other 'core corvoids', please see...

And for more on passerines of all kinds, check out...

Refs - -

Barker FK, Cibois A, Schikler P, Feinstein J, & Cracraft J (2004). Phylogeny and diversification of the largest avian radiation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101 (30), 11040-5 PMID: 15263073

Cracraft, J. & Feinstein, J. 2000. What is not a bird of paradise? Molecular and morphological evidence places Macgregoria in the Meliphagidae and the Cnemophilinae near the base of the corvoid tree. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 267, 233-241.

Diamond, J. 1983. Melampitta gigantea: possible relation between feather structure and underground roosting habits. Condor 85, 89-91.

Irestedt, M., Fuchs, J., Jønsson, K. A., Ohlson, J. I., Pasquet, E. & Ericson, P. G. P. 2008. The systematic affinity of the enigmatic Lamprolia victoriae (Aves: Passeriformes) - an example of avian dispersal between New Guinea and Fiji over Miocene intermittent land bridges? Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 48, 1218-1222.

Jønsson, K. A. & Fjeldså, J. 2006. A phylogenetic supertree of oscine passerine birds (Aves: Passeri). Zoologica Scriptca 35, 149-186.

Sibley, C. & Ahlquist, J. 1987. The Lesser melampitta is a bird of pradise. Emu 87, 66-68.

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Birds of paradise are beautiful animals. If I remember correctly, they were the subject of a number of articles on Tet Zoo version 1. How do you afford all these books. It must cost a fortune to buy all these good books, especially the older ones.

While I agree the parrot at the top is fictional, it was not pulled out of thin air by the author. It is, I am sure, derived from a certain painting of a parrot. In fact,a copy of said painting hangs in my parents' house. According to my father, it's a garbled depiction of an *Amazona aestiva*, but I don't agree. The bird in the painting looks like a Mascarene parrot colored green, blue and yellow and given a light-colored beak. I'm afraid I can't provide a pic of it now, though.
I find it curious that this painting has been coupled for the mural. Together with the lory being recognisable but not correct, it seems rather clear the artist was far more informed concerning birds-of-paradise than concerning parrots.
By the way, haven't New Zealand piopios (*Turnagra*) also been considered (related to)birds-of-paradise at times?

DMA: how do I afford all those books? I don't! Like everyone who likes books, I have on occasion spent stupid money on them, but by and large I just have to miss out. I'm still looking for a wealthy benefactor :)

Brian: interesting on the parrot, thanks. Note that I deliberately didn't discuss the whole alleged link (now widely regarded to be erroneous) between bowerbirds and birds-of-paradise: for reasons of time and sanity I often have to ignore some things entirely (recent studies have found bowerbirds well outside of 'core corvoids' and hence not at all close to birds-of-paradise).

As for Turnagra (the two Piopio, now often given their own 'family', Turnagridae), Christidis et al. (1996) used molecular data to show that it's a bowerbird. Previous authors allied Turnagra with whistlers (pachycephalines) or cnemophilines (then thought to be birds-of-paradise). I'm not aware of any studies since Christidis et al. (1996) that incorporate data from either species, but Worthy & Holdaway (2002) did express a bit of scepticism: they said that the claimed link with bowerbirds was perhaps "an artifact of the groups chosen by Christidis et al. (1996) for their comparisons" (p. 434).

Ref - -

Christidis, L., Leeton, P. R. & Westerman, M. 1996. Were bowerbirds part of the New Zealand fauna? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 93, 3898-3901.

Worthy, T. H., Holdaway, R. N. 2002. The Lost World of the Moa. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana.


as usual I was planning to do nothing more than say "oooh, look, interesting street-art". But I failed.

:-) :-) :-) :-) :-)

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 19 May 2011 #permalink

Thanks. I hadn't heard about MacGregoria being a honey eater. It seems that the news is spreading slowly, too.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 20 May 2011 #permalink

Interesting are also structures on feathers of South-American woodcreepers and barbtails.

@"The Lost Birds of Paradise"
Beautiful target to DNA analysis! Coming back to my old saying, that many new bird species lay in world's museums labelled as freak specimens.
I doubt that any BoP is extinct, though, because New Guinea still has large intact (and un-inhabited) areas. Maybe if it was endemic of some tiny offshore island...