The Magnificent Riflebird's Crazy Courtship Dance

No 55

Birds-of-paradise have some of the most theatrical breeding rituals in the natural world. This avian family's penchant for excessive (and entirely harmless) courtship display is the evolutionary result of millennia of relatively easy living in its native New Guinea. With few predators or inhospitable elements to fight off, females have come to place a higher premium on what we humans might refer to as an “artistic" skill set.

Hence the extravagant plumage, outlandish sounds, and carefully orchestrated dance-like movements one finds among the 39 bird-of-paradise species. Such ornaments are the property of males only, and employed for a single purpose: wooing a mate.

The magnificent riflebird (Ptiloiris magnificus) is an especially flamboyant performer. When a male in mating mode senses a female nearby, he switches on. Flicking open his wings like a fan, he proceeds to slice them back and forth through the air, hopping forward and throwing his head from to side to side in rhythm to the whooshing sounds created by the action of his wings.

“The dance actually has a real tempo to it, almost a musicality—and it really demands a coordinated physical effort on the part of the male to make it look just right," says Cornell University ornithologist Dr. Edwin Scholes, who has observed such courtship displays in the wild.

The male throws his head back during this burst of avian flamenco, the better for the female to appreciate his brilliantly iridescent neck feathers. If the feathers strike her fancy, the female will approach. If the whole demonstration does the trick, she'll stick around even longer.

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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