Mating Gets the King of Saxony Bird-of-Paradise Excited

No 56

When the first bird-of-paradise specimens arrived in Spain aboard Magellan's ship in 1522, Europeans struggled to believe they were of this planet. To this day, the King of Saxony bird-of-paradise (Pteriodophora alberti) inspires similar doubts.Males of the species flourish antennae-like brow-plumes that are twice as long as their bodies, and their calls sound less like sweet twittering and more like enraged aliens, or a large-scale electronics meltdown —“an extraordinary screeching, buzzing, hissing call that sounds like anything but a bird," according to Cornell University ornithologist Dr. Edwin Scholes.

As gratuitous as these bizarre attributes may seem, they serve a purpose: attracting a mate. Like most birds-of-paradise species, the King-of-Saxony are endemic to New Guinea, where a warm climate, abundant food, and relative absence of predators have helped make sexual selection a main driver of evolutionary change, rather than more life-or-death imperatives such as temperature regulation or hunting ability. Female King-of-Saxony birds find the outrageous plumage and furious singing of the males appealing, and so over millions of years these traits have become more pronounced.

In the process, the King-of-Saxony birds in particular have become a key part of the high-elevation cloud forests they call home. “The sound that they make is actually one of the defining features of this habitat," Scholes notes. Those males who broadcast most successfully across the treetops have the best chances of passing down their traits—nothing otherworldly about that.

This short film, one in a three-part Jungles in Paris series, is presented in collaboration with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For more, see the Birds of Paradise Project. All footage is used with permission.

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