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Nature offers a window on global natural history, providing a unique insight into the natural world, the environment, and the magnificent creatures that inhabit it.
LISTEN AGAINListen 30 min
Listen to 23 May
Brett Westwood
Monday 23 May 2005
Huli Tribe
Huli Tribe in Papua New Guinea wearing head dresses made of the feathers of birds of paradise

Birds of Paradise

The birds of paradise are the most colourful family of birds. For hundreds of years they have fascinated naturalists, scientists and collectors with their beauty and spectacular courtship displays. Of the 43 kinds of bird of paradise, 38 inhabit the forests of Papua New Guinea. Long before the western world became aware of these birds, they were integrated into the culture of the people of Papua New Guinea and many traditional customs still exist today.

In this edition of Nature, Brett Westwood meets three naturalists with a passionate interest in these birds. They are natural history broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough; BBC Natural History film maker, Huw Cordey; and ornithologist, writer and photographer, Clifford Frith.

Through their stories, personal encounters, field recordings and research, Brett discovers the truth about the mythological origins of the birds of paradise. He learns about their cultural importance, gains an insight into their amazing biology and courtship behaviour, and discovers the threats which face their future survival. It's a fascinating, colourful and noisy story!

As David Attenborough reveals how birds of paradise are so called, not because of their magnificent and colourful appearance, but because at one time they were thought to be the birds of the gods. Stories were told of how they floated wingless feeding on dew and only came into human hands when they died and fell from paradise to earth.

Huw Cordey recalls his experiences of trying to film the rarely seen courtship display of the blue bird of paradise - one of the most bizarre sounds from the animal kingdom.

There are more unusual sounds when Huw plays some recordings he made at a Sing-Sing Festival; a traditional festival where the local people wear huge head-dresses adorned with feathers and mimic the bird's courtship displays in their dances and singing.

Writer and photographer, Clifford Frith provides an insight into the evolution and biology of the courtship displays.

Guy Dutson from Birdlife International highlights the effects of logging, deforestation and human pressures on the future survival of these magnificent birds.

Further Reading

The Birds of Paradise by Clifford B. Frith and Bruce M. Beehler
Published by Oxford University Press, 1998
ISBD 0 19 854853 2
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