By BRIAN BINGAMAN
They spent hours upon hours in the remote rainforests of New Guinea so you don’t have to.
National Geographic, photographer Tim Laman and Cornell University ornithologist Edwin Scholes brought back a wealth of new images and research on the 39 known species of birds-of-paradise, which are only native to New Guinea. The greatest hits of these rock star birders can be found in the interactive multimedia exhibit “Birds of Paradise” at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.
Their calls are strange, and even the birds’ names are exotic — king of Saxony, curl-crested manucode, and 12-wired bird of paradise, whose long whisker appendages protrude strangely from its tail-end.
“Everything about birds-of-paradise is absolutely cosmic,” said the academy’s resident ornithologist, Dr. Nate Rice, who has observed just one live bird-of-paradise in his career. “Birds-of-paradise have been objects of wonder for centuries.”
For being so hard to find in the wild, it turns out that the elegantly-plumed birds are quite shameless exhibitionists. The males put on an over-the-top, yet elaborate, show when it’s time to mate, in hopes that a female will think them fancy enough to produce fancy offspring. A two-part animated video in Birds of Paradise refers to it as “Survival of the Sexiest.”
The male Victoria’s riflebird — amusingly described in the exhibit as a “pole dancer” — dramatically lifts its wings and rhythmically raises and lowers its body, beak open, performing a sort of fan dance with its wings.
Another species, the magnificent riflebird, puffs itself into the shape of an oval when a female approaches, rapidly whipping its head back and forth so that all you can see is a black oval topped with a blur of bright blue feathers.
One video station has a control wheel that lets you control the speed, and even wind backwards, the five stages of the superb bird of paradise’s dance.
Although academy president and CEO George Gephart called their courtship dances “frankly, bizarre,” you’re encouraged to imitate their pivots, sidles and hop-and-waggles at the “Dance Dance Evolution” station.
Seizing an opportunity to display a small portion of its 200,000 preserved bird specimens, the academy presents them in a 19th century Victorian setting, along with a few ladies’ hats of that period made from bird-of-paradise feathers. The section salutes Charles Darwin and fellow evolution research scientist Alfred Russell Wallace.
“Birds of Paradise,” which by the way does not include toucans or parrots because they’re not from the same family, even explores what the birds mean to the people of New Guinea.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Birds of Paradise.”
WHERE: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia.
WHEN: Through Sept. 1.
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, till 5 p.m. on weekends and holidays.
ADMISSION: $15, $13 for seniors, students and military personnel. Group rates are available.
INFO: Call (215) 299-1000 or visit www.ansp.org and www.facebook.com/AcademyofNaturalSciences. On Twitter @AcadNatSci.
Follow Brian Bingaman on Twitter @brianbingaman.