Science in Mind

Harvard-affiliated biologist and photographer reveals secrets of birds of paradise

Photographer Tim Laman shooting King Bird of Paradise from a canopy platform in lowland rain forest.
Photographer Tim Laman shooting King Bird of Paradise from a canopy platform in lowland rain forest.© Tim Laman/National Geographic

It took eight years, countless hours crouched high in the New Guinea rainforest canopy, and new photographic techniques tested out on the turkeys that strutted into Tim Laman’s Lexington backyard to photograph all 39 species of visually stunning and flamboyant birds of paradise.

The results of that effort—featured in a marvelous new book, the December issue of National Geographic, and a documentary to be aired Thanksgiving night-- are breathtaking, weird, and delightful.

Laman, a field biologist and photographer affiliated with the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, has an unusual career in which the skills he mastered as a Boy Scout—camping, backpacking, archery—are essential. In 2003, he teamed up with Edwin Scholes, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in a partnership that would take them on 18 trips to New Guinea. Through rain, floods, and interminable waiting for birds to show up at the right time, on the right branch, in the right light, they sought birds of paradise at 51 field sites. The life of a scientist-explorer isn’t exactly easy: it involved traversing flooded forests, rough boat rides, and being dropped off by helicopter in remote jungle. Laman climbed 165 feet up into trees and set up bird blinds and leafcams, staking out some of the most exotic animals on Earth.

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“Compared to a lot of other kinds of wildlife photography, there was a lot more failure, of just getting nothing,” Laman said in an interview.

There’s something a little alien about birds of paradise; some species more closely resemble our conceptions of UFOs than birds. The male parotia flares out its breast feathers and dances like a crazed ballerina, swooping his head like a hip hop star, and flashing iridescent feathers to woo females. To check whether an area was being used by a male bird, scientists scattered leaves all over it. They knew that parotias are neat freaks, maniacally cleaning up their staging areas and tossing away leaves to make room for their performance. Sure enough, a male showed up and started cleaning house.

But birds of paradise also raise fascinating questions about how evolution could have such gaudy results. New Guinea, Laman explains, is a unique environment. Because it was not connected to Asia, there aren’t cats, civets, and other predators for these birds. The landscape is also undeveloped—there are hardly any roads, and the birds live in a world of plenty, so females don’t need help from males to raise their young. That’s allowed sexual selection—the whims and desires of the females—to go out of control.

“It sort of freed the male up to not have to do any work, be flamboyant—and the females can just choose them based on whatever they decide,” Laman said. “Once they get down some path of choosing longer and longer tails and brighter and brighter colors, sexual selection has kind of gone wild.”

Laman said he’s soon off to Australia to start his next expedition, but he’s hoping to continue documenting the behavior and biology of birds of paradise. The scientists decided, for example, to tape the somewhat perplexing dance of the parotia bird from above: the female’s vantage point. Head-on, the bird looks odd as he toddles back and forth, breast feathers flared into a cone. But from above, as he would be viewed by a potential mate—the one who matters—he’s a disk of black with irridescent flashes.

Laman will be giving a talk at the Harvard Museum of Natural History on Monday at 6 p.m., where he will tell some of the back story of this long adventure and scientific expedition. The documetary, “Winged Seduction: Birds of Paradise” will air at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving on the National Geographic Channel.

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