The Shape-shifter and the Architect
Story and photos by Tony Robinson-Smith

How to impress the ladies, West Papuan style! Two Canadian travelers witness curious courtship rituals among the showy birds of West Papua.

clearing in West Papua

My wife Nadya and I sit alone in the dark, faces pressed to portholes punched in the front a palm-leaf hide. The view is of a clearing in the forest, gradually gaining depth in the first light of day. We focus our attention on a pandanus fruit balanced a meter off the ground on a tripod of sticks. It is a massive specimen, blood red and phallic, twice the length and girth of an English cucumber.

Our quarry is 19cm long and has a lumped brown head, green belly, yellow back, and blue legs. Jutting from its rear are two wires resembling coiled springs. This is the male Magnificent Bird of Paradise, which, according to our bird book, utters when courting, "a rapid rolling series of -8 loud, downslurred churr notes, growing louder and more insistent."

Palm leaf hide

We have been in West Papua—the Indonesian half of New Guinea—a month now, choosing to discover Kepala Burung ("Bird's Head" peninsula) at the western end first. One of our motives for visiting the second largest island on earth is to behold the unique and quixotic Birds of Paradise and Bowerbirds, of which our bird book lists twenty-nine and eighteen respectively, most of which can only be seen on this island. Their appeal is not simply the brightly painted plumage and extravagant antennae, fans, wires, streamers, and manes. Nor is it the unearthly twanging, shrieking, growling, and churring cries they make. The primary appeal is the propensity of the males to perform elaborate dances when courting the females.

Magnificent Bird of Paradise
© Ventures Birding Tours

A Black-eared Catbird, larger than our quarry and with green wings and a pied head, visits the fruit first, then the heavily striated brown-and-white Eastern Koel. Next to feed are three female Magnificent Birds of Paradise: plain, thrush-like birds with blue eye-flashes and matching legs. A flash of yellow, and a male joins them in the clearing. Filled, it would seem, with a sense of occasion, he settles on a low branch, shrugs his head into his body and puffs out his gleaming green chest.

Now, he is the shape of a box. The ladies look down at him with interest. He squawks raucously several times, and one flies to his branch. He turns to face her. Rearing up, he stretches his neck, points his beak skyward, and erects a yellow fan from behind his neck. This makes his brown head that much more striking, and I think of the standing ruffs Elizabethan ladies used to wear. He holds this pose for several seconds, his tail coils quivering and glinting in the morning sun. He now seems much longer than his modest 19cm. The female draws closer and looks him over, but then suddenly shoots off. Bewildered, he churrs loudly, looking from left to right for a cause. A rival male? The fan flattens, and he shrinks back to his usual size. "Kyerng!" he says, dropping to the ground to tidy up his display area.

Protecting Paradise

Before we left Canada, a friend said we'd be unlikely to see Birds of Paradise perform courtship dances at close quarters, but here we are today witnessing one ten meters away. We are in the Arfak Mountains, west of Manokwari (at the back of the Bird's Head), and this is our second encounter. Earlier in the month, we were Bird guide papuaexploring Raja Ampat, a group of islands fragmenting from "the bill" of Kepala Burung. There, too, we were up at 5am with flashlights, hacking our way through jungle, searching for Birds of Paradise.

With an iridescent green face, yellow shoulders, "curved red flank plumes, and a pair of prominent, long, curling, black tail streamers," the male Red Bird of Paradise was every bit as flamboyant as the Magnificent. To impress the girls, he likes to hang upside down from a high branch, spread his wings, shimmy, and shriek, "Wok! Wok!... Wak! Wak! Wak!" With his plumes and streamers hanging down on either side of his body, he conjures up the image of a madman poking his head through the leaves and yelling imprecations.

These are birds you do not see unless you have a guide. Ours in the Arfak Mountains is Hans Mandacan, a wiry Papuan with tightly coiled hair who belongs to the Hatam tribe and carries a bush knife the length of a cricket bat everywhere he goes. "Come my village," he exclaimed when we met him in Manokwari, "and I will show you Western Parotia, Vogelkop Bowerbird, Black Sicklebill, and Magnificent Bird of Paradise!"

lorakeet guesthouse

We didn't need much convincing. Anything to be away from the boiling streets of the provincial capital with its flyblown sewers, mounds of trash, buzzing motorbikes, and open fires. The air quality was terrible. At Papua Lorikeet Guesthouse in the mountains, aside from money for accommodation and food, we pay 50,000 rupiah (three and a half bucks) each per day as a "contribution to the village," the agreement being that, in return, the locals won't shoot Birds of Paradise or Bowerbirds for their feathers. "The land here is merindung," our guide assures us. Protected. "If you kill one bird here, you pay five million rupiah."

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