I love seeing tetrapod-themed art, especially in unexpected places. While in London recently I noticed this ‘tropical bird’ painting on a piece of wooden boarding, erected to conceal building work. As you can see (larger version below), the work is mostly a brilliant montage of birds-of-paradise (properly Paradisaeidae), the remarkable resplendent “rainforest crows in fancy dress”* of New Guinea and its surrounds.
I’d prefer it if it was birds-of-paradise only, but it also features a few parrots (right at the top) and a Great blue turaco Corythaeola cristata too. The parrot at the very top of the image is hypothetical, but there’s a White-naped lory Lorius albidinuchus at top left (though without the characteristic white nape… and with green, instead of red, leg feathers). There’s a mystery passerine in the image, too, but I’ll leave you experts to work that one out.
Various of the ‘classic’ birds-of-paradise are shown, like Wilson’s bird-of-paradise Cicinnurus respublica (upper middle and middle), King bird-of-paradise C. regius (middle), Ribbon-tailed bird-of-paradise Astrapia mayeri (upper left and lower right), Twelve-wired bird-of-paradise Seleucidis melanoleuca (lower left), King of Saxony bird-of-paradise Pteridophora alberti (upper left and middle right, and shown below in painting by Richard Bowdler Sharpe), Raggiana bird-of-paradise Paradisaea raggiana (middle right), Lesser bird-of-paradise P. minor (lower left) and, my favourite, Blue bird-of-paradise P. rudolphi (bottom). The Blue bird-of-paradise is the one that’s famous for hanging upside-down during display while making an unearthly metallic throbbing noise.
The mostly black bird with prominent yellow facial wattles (shown at upper and lower middle, and see detail below) is Macgregoria pulchra, formerly known as Macgregor’s bird-of-paradise. However, Cracraft & Feinstein (2000) argued that it isn’t a bird-of-paradise at all but actually a honeyeater (Meliphagidae). In accordance, it’s increasingly known as either Macgregor’s honeyeater or as the Ochre-winged honeyeater.
This isn’t the only species recently removed from Paradisaeidae. The satinbirds or cnemophilines now seem not to be birds-of-paradise either, but actually close relatives of berrypeckers and longbills (Melanocharitidae). The melampittas – historically linked with logrunners (Orthonychidae) but stated emphatically to be birds-of-paradise by some authors (Sibley & Ahlquist 1987) – are perhaps, actually, monarch flycatchers (Monarchidae) (Jønsson & Fjeldså 2006). Oh, and I can’t mention melampittas without noting the fact that the strangely stiffened remiges and rectrices of the Greater melampitta Melampitta gigantea are hypothesised to be an adaptation for roosting inside limestone caves (Diamond 1983). The rachis actually projects a few millimetres beyond the end of the vane (even in fresh, unworn feathers) and wear results in conspicuous asymmetry at the vane tips. I should have mentioned this in the article on behavioural feather modification. And, dammit, the presence in melampittas of short bony spurs on the wrist should have been mentioned in the series on clubs, spurs, spikes and claws on bird wings.
You might wonder why birds like Macgregoria and the melampittas were included within Paradisaeidae when modern studies have found them to be nothing of the sort. Remember that many species are simply placed in a given taxonomic group because, historically, it has ‘seemed about right’, not because specific, detailed analysis has confirmed the close alliance of the species concerned with the undoubted ‘core’ members of the group in question. I’ve covered this sort of thing a few times before (go here and here for discussions of this phenomenon as seen in colubrid snakes).
It goes without saying that the approximately 40 bird-of-paradise species are a fascinating lot and I’m not about to do justice to them here. They’re remarkable not only for the flamboyant display plumage and massive sexual dimorphism present in many (though not all) species, but also for their incredible vocal displays and feeding specialisations. They’re very obviously ‘core corvoids’, close to such groups as cuckoo-shrikes, wood-swallows, vireos, orioles, vangas, drongos, corvids and shrikes. In fact some phylogenies find them to be closest to shrikes (Laniidae) and mudnesters (Corcoracidae or, more properly, Struthideidae) (e.g., Irestedt et al. 2008); other find them closest to crows (e.g., Cracraft & Feinstein 2000, Barker et al. 2004).
A large number of hybrids are on record, but at least some so-called hybrids have been argued to not be hybrids at all, but actually the sole representatives of possibly distinct (and now perhaps extinct) species. If that sounds like something you’d like to hear more about then you should definitely get hold of Errol Fuller’s very well illustrated book The Lost Birds of Paradise.
The classic modern volume on birds-of-paradise is Clifford Frith and Bruce Beehler’s Birds of Paradise: Paradisaeidae (Bird Families of the World) (Oxford University Press, 1998). Like a lot of those comprehensive, weighty ‘bird families of the world’-type books, it’s prohibitively expensive; even used copies don’t sell for cheaper than £100 (USA$161). On that note, I’ll stop here. These are but preliminary thoughts on this group… as usual I was planning to do nothing more than say “oooh, look, interesting street-art”. But I failed.
For previous Tet Zoo articles on birds-of-paradise and other ‘core corvoids’, please see…
- To the Sahara in quest of dinosaurs (living and extinct) (discusses Cyanopica)
- From Morocco, with larks, babblers, gazelles, owls and GIANT DINOSAUR BONES
- Goodbye Bulo Burti boubou (sort of)
- Ridiculous super-elongate, coiled windpipes allow some birds to function like trombones – – or is it violins?
- QUITE POSSIBLY THE BEST VIDEO I’VE EVER SEEN: archosaurs vs mammals (features Hooded crows)
- The snood of the turkey, the wires and rackets of the motmot, the face of the rook
And for more on passerines of all kinds, check out…
- Vampire finches and the path to parasitism
- Coccothraustes: most bizarre of finches
- An encounter with a crossbill
- Beasts of Portland: the location of wheatears, the spread of wall lizards, the scat of a lynx
- Lots of sunbirds have dumb names
- Sexual dimorphism in bird bills: commoner than we’d thought
- Ifrita the poisonous passerine
- Pseudopodoces, the corvid that wasn’t
- Passerine birds fight dirty, a la Velociraptor
- Dead baby birds: why here, why now?
- Great tits: murderous rapacious flesh-rending predators!
- Redstarts: good
- Putting Hypsipetes in the passerine tree
Refs – –
Barker FK, Cibois A, Schikler P, Feinstein J, & Cracraft J (2004). Phylogeny and diversification of the largest avian radiation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101 (30), 11040-5 PMID: 15263073
Cracraft, J. & Feinstein, J. 2000. What is not a bird of paradise? Molecular and morphological evidence places Macgregoria in the Meliphagidae and the Cnemophilinae near the base of the corvoid tree. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 267, 233-241.
Diamond, J. 1983. Melampitta gigantea: possible relation between feather structure and underground roosting habits. Condor 85, 89-91.
Irestedt, M., Fuchs, J., Jønsson, K. A., Ohlson, J. I., Pasquet, E. & Ericson, P. G. P. 2008. The systematic affinity of the enigmatic Lamprolia victoriae (Aves: Passeriformes) – an example of avian dispersal between New Guinea and Fiji over Miocene intermittent land bridges? Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 48, 1218-1222.
Jønsson, K. A. & Fjeldså, J. 2006. A phylogenetic supertree of oscine passerine birds (Aves: Passeri). Zoologica Scriptca 35, 149-186.
Sibley, C. & Ahlquist, J. 1987. The Lesser melampitta is a bird of pradise. Emu 87, 66-68.