There is no question whatsoever that the birds of paradise, a taxonomic family (Paradisaeidae) whose members are predominantly endemic to New Guinea but also name-check a few representative species inhabiting Australia and certain Indonesian islands, include among their number some of the world's most breathtakingly beautiful avian forms ever beheld by the eyes of humankind. In these species, the breeding plumage of the males erupt in a veritable explosion of feathered flamboyance – cascades of fiery streamers, ostentatious racquet-plumed head and pompom-plumed tail quills, an extravagant riot of ruffs, crests, tippets, lyrate extremities, and a glossy, scintillating, polychromatic surfacing of shimmering iridescence.
Moreover, so varied in form are the 40-odd species currently recognised by science that there has been much controversy down through the years regarding their comparative taxonomic affinities to one another, the possibility that certain rare preserved specimens are not mere hybrids as traditionally deemed but may represent species that are now extinct (click here for my ShukerNature blog post documenting these so-called 'lost birds of paradise'), and whether some species are not birds of paradise at all. It is with this last-mentioned, little-publicised category, the false birds of paradise, that this present ShukerNature blog post is concerned.
The most recent Paradisaeidae species to be accepted by science was the ribbon-tailed bird of paradise Astrapia mayeri, discovered to the west of Mount Hagen in New Guinea during 1938 and formally described a year later.
Errol Fuller's beautiful painting of a male ribbon-tailed bird of paradise (the female lacks this species' eponymous plumes) as featured on the front cover of my book The New Zoo: New and Rediscovered Animals of the Twentieth Century (© Errol Fuller/Dr Karl Shuker)
Between then and the 21st Century, a total of either 43 or 45 Paradisaeidae species had generally been recognised by ornithologists (not everyone classified the growling riflebird Ptilornis intercedens and the bronze six-wired bird of paradise Parotia berlepschi as full species). In February 2000, however, the publication of an extensive taxonomic study conducted upon this family's members by ornithological researchers Drs Joel Cracraft and Julie Feinstein, featuring mitochondrial gene analyses and morphological comparisons, provided some very startling surprises – exposing no less than four longstanding members as false birds of paradise. They have been since been duly evicted from Paradisaeidae and rehoused elsewhere.
Three of these paradise-plumed pretenders constituted the former subfamily Cnemophilinae, whose trio of species had long been a source of ornithological contention as to whether their affinities did indeed lie with – or, more precisely, within – Paradisaeidae. Stripped of their 'bird of paradise' monikers, they are now referred to as satinbirds on account of their very soft plumage, and are known in full as: Loria's satinbird Cnemophilus loriae, the crested satinbird C. macgregorii, and the yellow-breasted or lobe-billed satinbird Loboparadisea lobata.
The Cracraft/Feinstein study provided clear molecular and morphological evidence that these species were sufficiently discrete from all other birds of paradise for their entire subfamily to require recategorisation as a distinct taxonomic family in its own right – Cnemophilidae. It constitutes a basal family within the superfamily Corvoidea, alongside Paradisaeidae, Corvidae (the crows), and many other passerine families.
As for the fourth false bird of paradise, Macgregoria pulchra, the only member of its genus and hitherto known as MacGregor's bird of paradise, which was formally described and named as far back as 1897, Cracraft and Feinstein had an even bigger shock in store. This was because their findings showed that it was not even a member of the superfamily Corvoidea, let alone the bird of paradise family Paradisaeidae. Instead, it was identified unequivocally as a honeyeater, i.e. belonging to the family Meliphagidae (whose numerous members occur widely across Australasia, the Pacific, and even into Bali), which in turn is housed within the superfamily Meliphagoidea.
Having said that, I must confess that this latter taxonomic turnabout did not come as a major surprise to me because Macgregoria pulchra, now known as MacGregor's honeyeater, bears a very close external resemblance to two particular species of honeyeater – the common smoky honeyeater Melipotes fumigatus and the recently-discovered wattled smoky honeyeater Melipotes carolae, both of which, like Macgregoria, are native to New Guinea. Sometimes, of course, outward similarities are merely the result of convergent evolution rather than being indicative of close genetic affinity, but in this particular case their morphological resemblances were indeed mirrored by their genetic comparabilities.
And now for a couple of not-so-false birds of paradise.
Of all the many spectacular, valid Paradisaeidae members in existence, my personal favourite is the truly extraordinary King of Saxony bird of paradise Pteridophora alberti, or, more specifically, the adult male of this species. Only the size of a starling, with predominantly black and yellow plumage, what sets it entirely apart from all other birds of paradise – and, indeed, all other birds of any kind – is the pair of enormously long, ribbon-like plumes born upon its head. Each one is more than twice the total length of the bird itself and resembles a streamer composed of tiny enamelled scallops or mini-flags (earning its species the alternative name of enamelled bird), blue on one side and pink on the other. These two plumes are independently erectile, and during courtship the male variously directs them forwards over his head, downwards and forwards beneath his perch, backwards, and even directly away from one another horizontally in his enthusiastic semaphore-like attempts to attract and retain the attention of the much more sombre-looking female, who lacks these incredible plumes.
Taxiderm specimen of a male King of Saxony bird of paradise (with a taxiderm MacGregor's honeyeater behind it) at Tring Natural History Museum (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Native to New Guinea, this marvellous species was formally described in December 1894 by Dresden Museum ornithologist Adolf B. Meyer, commemorating in both its common and binomial name King Albert of Saxony. However, when the first skins had been brought to Europe, they had been denounced as fakes due to the ostensible implausibility of the male's head plumes, and even after Meyer had recognised that they were genuine and accordingly described this species, not everyone was convinced about its authenticity.
Indeed, after reading Meyer's description, esteemed English ornithologist Richard Bowdler Sharpe, famed for his lavishly-illustrated two-volume tome Monograph of the Paradiseidae or Birds of Paradise and Ptilonorhynchidae or Bowerbirds (first edition published in 1891), remarked in apparent disgust that even a fool would know that this bird was nothing more than an artefact. By 1898, however, when the enlarged, second edition of his work appeared, Bowdler Sharpe had clearly changed his mind, not only including in Vol. 1 an account and painting of a male King of Saxony, but even referring to it as "a wonderful form".
Nevertheless, doubts were still expressed by a few voices here and there for some time to come. Perhaps the last, but most memorable, were aired as recently as 1950 by Australian ornithologist Tom Iredale in his book Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds, and not only about this species. Indeed, he devoted an entire (albeit short) chapter to what he referred to as false birds of paradise. Three in number, the suspects in question were introduced by him as follows:
"…some false Birds of Paradise, such as Wallace's which is obviously only a glorified Friar Bird [a genus of honeyeaters, Philemon, in Meliphagidae], and the Enamelled [i.e. King of Saxony], which may be anything save a relative of any of the foregoing [i.e. the genuine birds of paradise]. A bird like Macgregoria may be a honeyeater."
Named after British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who in 1858 discovered this gorgeous species in its Moluccan homeland (it is the westernmost of the true birds of paradise), Wallace's standardwing Semioptera wallacii does bear a passing resemblance to the friar birds, particularly with regard to its head's appearance. However, the study of Cracraft and Feinstein fully vindicated its traditional classification as a bird of paradise – as well as that of the King of Saxony (which they revealed to be most closely allied to the six-wired birds of paradise, genus Parotia).
Iredale's book attracted much criticism from other ornithologists due to the above and many other novel, controversial, and unsubstantiated opinions put forward by him. Perhaps the most scathing response, however, came from renowned taxonomist/tropical explorer/ornithologist Prof. Ernst Mayr. Having spent considerable amounts of time seeking and observing birds of paradise in their jungle homelands, Mayr verbally tore Iredale and his book into shreds via a searing 3-page review published in January 1951 by the Australian journal Emu. In it, Mayr totally dismissed Iredale's above-quoted speculations concerning false birds of paradise by way of a single but highly vitriolic sentence:
"Merely a study of the displays would show that the suggested relationships are absurd."
Iredale died in 1972, which meant, sadly, that he was never able to have the last laugh on Mayr and his caustic vituperation, which he would certainly have done. For although their study confirmed that Wallace's standardwing and the King of Saxony bird of paradise are bona fide Paradisaeidae members, as we have already seen here Cracraft and Feinstein also revealed that Macgregoria is indeed a honeyeater! Mayr, conversely, did not die until 2005, at the grand age of 100, so he may well have been aware of this reclassification of Macgregoria, but even if so, his thoughts on the matter do not appear to have been recorded.
One thing is certain, however – had Iredale also lived to learn of it, and had subsequently encountered Mayr, the atmosphere between them would have been anything but paradisiacal, that's for sure!
Leading on from false birds of paradise and not-so-false birds of paradise, let me now conclude this ShukerNature blog post with a brief review of some once-and-future(?) birds of paradise. Ever since their respective scientific discoveries and descriptions during the 19th Century, three species of very enigmatic bird have been variously categorised within and summarily ejected out of Paradisaeidae on numerous occasions by numerous ornithologists, and even today, with sophisticated genetics-based analyses readily to hand, their precise taxonomic positions remain much-debated but ultimately unresolved.
Native to Fiji, the silktail Lamprolia victoriae was formally described and named in 1874 by German naturalist Otto Finsch, who freely confessed to being very perplexed as to where it should be categorised within the passerines' taxonomic classification. Since then, this small, velvet-black bird has continued to elicit bewilderment within successive generations of ornithological researchers, having been variously assigned to the birds of paradise, the Australian robins (Petroicidae), the fairy wrens (Maluridae), the monarch flycatchers (Monarchidae), and, following a molecular study published in 2009, within a sister clade to the fantails (Rhipiduridae). If the silktail ever did prove to be a bird of paradise, this would be very notable from a zoogeographical standpoint, because it would constitute the only known species native to a South Pacific locality.
No less mystifying are the two members of the genus Melampitta, from which they derive one of their two common names (the other one being ground-thrush). The more familiar of these two species is the lesser melampitta M. lugubris, whereas its larger relative, the greater melampitta M. gigantea, is less well-known; both species are endemic to remote rainforests in New Guinea. As their name indicates, in outward appearance they resemble black pittas, and were once classed within the pitta family (Pittidae), but in later years they have been transferred widely from one family to another, including the babblers (Timaliidae), the logrunners (Orthonychidae), the quail-thrushes and allies (Cinclosomatidae), the white-winged chough and apostlebird (Corcoracidae), and, inevitably, the birds of paradise.
This latter link was seemingly reinforced in 1987 by molecular studies involving the analysis of DNA-DNA hybridisation data obtained with the lesser melampitta, but more recently a closer affinity with those false birds of paradise the satinbirds has been proposed. Not surprisingly, confronted by such a daunting diversity of classifications, many ornithologists nowadays allocate to the melampittas a taxonomic family of their own, although some also acknowledge this to be more a categorisation of convenience than a realistic attempt to resolve the longstanding riddle of their true identity.
And finally: could there be any bird of paradise species still awaiting scientific discovery? Click here and here to find out!
And finally: could there be any bird of paradise species still awaiting scientific discovery? Click here and here to find out!