A pair of greater birds of paradise, painted by John Gould
One of the most showy and flamboyant species of bird of paradise is the greater bird of paradise Paradisaea apoda. It also features in a very sad yet little-known episode in the history of attempted avian naturalisation programmes.
Native to southern New Guinea and the offshore Aru Islands, its numbers were depredated so severely for their cascading, flame-like sprays of gold, white, and maroon-hued flank feathers during the fashion craze for these latter-day phoenixes’ plumes, however, that this spectacular species seemed surely destined for extinction. Someone who resolved to avert this disaster, however, was newspaper magnate Sir William Ingram. Deciding that its best hope lay in repatriation far beyond the threat of the plume industry, Sir William (not a person given to small measures) bought an entire (albeit tiny) Caribbean islet - uninhabited Little Tobago in the West Indies, whose tropical climate would provide a home-from-home environment - and established a warden-monitored colony of P. apoda there, consisting of just under 50 immature birds captured alive during an expedition to the Aru Islands in 1909.
A male greater bird of paradise, by Travies, from Dictionnaire D'Histoire Naturelle, 1849
Many introductions of exotic species from one part of the world to another have failed dismally, but happily the birds of paradise seemed to thrive in their new if unexpected home; and even though (thankfully) the introduction’s original purpose had been rendered obsolete - the plume industry collapsed before this species could become extinct in its native lands - the West Indian contingent was permitted to remain on Little Tobago after Sir William’s death.
Over the years, the population remained relatively constant, rarely exceeding or falling much below the 20-30 individuals mark. But then came Hurricane Flora, a meteorological monster that mercilessly lashed Little Tobago one devastating day in 1963, and remorselessly swept most of the hapless birds of paradise out into the rampaging waves, to their inevitable death. Only a handful remained alive, and most of those were males. The plucky little population was doomed — no specimen has been recorded from the islet for many years. The unexpected phoenix of Little Tobago had been extinguished not by flame but by wind and water, and just as surely as if it had been exterminated by the plume-hunters back home in New Guinea.
19th-Century colour engraving portraying a selection of bird of paradise species
This ShukerNature post is an excerpt from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2007).