The new National Geographic documentary chronicling the Birds-of-Paradise Project will air on Thanksgiving evening at 10 P.M. Eastern time, perfect timing for post-turkey viewing. (The documentary is also available on DVD.) Staff writer Pat Leonard took an early look and has this review for you:
Scientific discovery is thrilling—but sometimes difficult and messy, too. Nowhere is that more evident than in “Winged Seduction: Birds of Paradise,” the new documentary from National Geographic TV. I was intrigued by the lengths the team had to go to in order to get such fleeting footage of these amazing birds (like the Twelve-wired Birds-of-Paradise above).
The program follows biologist Ed Scholes from the Cornell Lab and photojournalist Tim Laman into the jungle-clothed mountains and valleys of New Guinea and surrounding islands. Their quest to visually document all 39 species of the birds-of-paradise took 18 expeditions during 8 years at 51 field sites. Their success has introduced the marvels of a little-known but powerful branch of evolution, known as sexual selection, to the wider world. As the scientists explain on camera, sexual selection is why these extravagantly plumed males sing, dance, and transform into new shapes, all in the name of love (or at least reproduction).
Without giving too much away, you’ll see how Tim and Ed, working with native guides and assistants, found what they needed in the “jungle hardware store” to build blinds, ladders, huts, and more. These sturdy structures let them get close enough to these magnificent birds to document behavior never seen before. In some cases, that meant perching in the treetops along with the birds, 150 feet above the ground, to capture breathtaking dawn mating dances against a lush jungle backdrop. Just as often it meant bashing through hot, muddy, bug-and-leech-bedeviled jungle valleys, sometimes parked in cramped blinds for days to capture a few seconds of coveted video. The reward was worth the risk, as the two men watched the spellbinding rituals of the Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise, the Superb Bird-of-Paradise, the King-of-Saxony Bird-of-Paradise and so much more.
One of the scientists’ more ingenious creations was to cloak a treetop-mounted camera with large leaves so the birds would not be distracted or scared away. This “leaf-cam” captured some of the most entrancing images (see more of it in our Living Bird online article). Tim and Ed then rigged up their own “jungle ethernet” to make tree-to-tree computer connections for this modern-day version of biological specimen collection.
Above all, you’ll admire the birds—and gain a new respect for the power of female decision making. Over millennia, female birds-of-paradise have chosen males with more and more outrageous decorations and fancy footwork. With few predators to make being eye-catching a hazard, and isolated in their remote mountains and valleys, the male birds-of-paradise have become some of the most outlandish birds on the planet. (I found myself wondering if the process works the same way in human relationships too!)
The show chronicles the trials and travails of the researchers, so it may leave you itching to see more of the birds. You can get your fill at the Cornell Lab YouTube Channel and our Macaulay Library website. Tim and Ed have contributed more than 2,000 video clips to the archive that show bird-of-paradise behaviors and some very un-birdlike sounds. The accompanying book, Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds has “holiday gift” written all over it, if you have a birder on your list! Tim and Ed are taking the show on the road in the coming year. Check here to find out if they’ll be speaking in a city near you.
The Birds-of-Paradise Project is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Geographic Society.