Siiting in front of the television as a small child, I was completely captivated by a small bird. Listening to the calming and knowledgeable voice of David Attenborough, I was transfixed by the small black and bluish bird that was parading himself around in front of me. As I listened, I was informed that he lived in the depths of the rich tropical forest, and that his quirky dancing was his way of trying his damnedest to impress a female. Apart from the fantastic colours and sassy dance moves of this little bird, the first thing that had attracted me to watch and listen, was the name of this species. After all, a bird with such a name had to be as mysterious as it sounded. This, David told me, was a bird of paradise. To be precise, a Victoria’s Riflebird.
After that, I watched many programs documenting the many varieties of these birds of paradise and I became fascinated by how bright, brilliant and beautiful they are. In total, there are 42 species of birds of paradise in the world and they can be found brightening up the tropical forests of Australia, New Guinea and Indonesia. However, the beauty of these birds has gone hand in hand with their downfall, because, as we know, nothing attracts us humans like a few bright colours and some outstanding beauty.
But human attraction can be a dark thing, and this we proved 5000 years ago, when trade in the plumage of these birds began. Trade first began in the native countries of these birds, and spread to the west in the 1500s. In 1520, the Sultan of Batchian (Islands in Indonesia) presented the skins of some birds to a Portuguese Sea Captain for him to give to the King of Spain. When they arrived in Europe, us humans wanted more. This want increased with the captivating stories that attached themselves to these colourful specimens. The western nations were told fascinating tales of these ‘bolong diuata’, or Birds of the Gods. We were told how they lived in heaven, feeding off heavenly dew until they eventually died, falling to Earth to reside in their closest thing to heaven: hot, tropical forests.Such enchanting and mystical tales were told for another 150 years and over that time we became more and more obsessed with these birds.
As a result of their mystery and popularity, naturalists began to travel to these foreign forests in order to see these creatures in the wild. Consequently, more and more bird skins were returned to Europe and the USA, where feathers began to be used in ladies fashion. Before long, the trade began to thrive and thousands of birds, particularly male birds, were being killed and exported from their native lands to the west. In the four years between 1904 and 1908, 155,000 skins of birds of paradise were sold in London.
However, salvation in the form of the RSPB soon arrived. When the fate of young birds starving in their nests came to light, some women shunned the trade and begun to act against the import of exotic feathers. In 1917 and 1921, laws were introduced which banned the import of plumes into England and in 1922, the hunting of birds of paradise became banned in New Guinea. Although this halted the trade to an extent, trading in Indonesia continued until 1990.
So, with such a harsh history which was greatly intertwined with human activity, we might expect these birds of paradise to be highly endangered. Thankfully, yet surprisingly, they are not. None of the 42 species of birds of paradise are classed as endangered and they have their own lifestyles to thank for this. As a polygynous species, a male can father several nests in one year, so when males were lost, numbers of chicks were not drastically reduced. In addition, the trade was mainly confined to the more beautiful and flashy males. Male birds of paradise, in general, do not reach sexual maturity until they are around 5 years of age, therefore, many of those males lost, would not have been breeding.
However, there are some species that are thought to be vulnerable. The blue-bird of paradise and the black sicklebill are both, according to the IUCN, vulnerable species. Although hunting for food and traditional headdresses in their native countries does still occur, it is not considered as a long-term threat to these species. In fact, this vulnerability is mainly as a consequence of habitat loss, rather than hunting.
So, despite their past trials and association with the plume trade, the majority of these gorgeous birds are still surviving after thousands of years. Though habitat loss is a not something to be looked upon lightly and is a serious threat that is likely to grow, the recognition of this as a threat to many species may serve as their protection. Let’s hope so, because though they have triumphed over the human trade, the loss of their habitat may be one step too far.
Despite all of this, one thing is for sure, our birds of the gods are not about to give up their paradise.
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