All five species of Astrapia have long, showy tails. Each type of tail feather, no matter how showy, has all the parts of a basic feather: a central shaft (rachis) and a flat vane made up of hundreds of interlocking barbs and barbules. The barbs branch off the rachis, and the barbules branch off the barbs. Ed Scholes explains details in this video.
The Standardwing Bird-of-Paradise is named for the unusually long feathers that trail from its wing like a flag. (“Standard” is an old word for flag.)
The filmy display plumes of the Greater Bird-of-Paradise are modified feathers. The barbs are spaced farther apart and the barbules are small. They don’t lock together to form a normal feather surface.
These bright yellow feathers aren’t the bird’s tail or wings, they are long flank feathers. And the curious black wires aren’t separate feathers—they are barbless extensions of twelve of those yellow flank feathers.
Much as long tails are a theme in the Astrapia species, the Cicinnurus genus features wiry, curlicue tails. Presumably, as populations of the common ancestor became isolated from one another, female preferences diverged to produce slight variations on the theme.
Here’s a closer look at one of those curling tails. The central rachis is very long, while the barbs are very short and give the blue sheen (a structural color) to the tail.
This extraordinary curved tail has a completely bare rachis all the way to the disc-shaped, emerald tip. These medallions are made as the rachis coils into a tight spiral. Barbs and barbules grow from only one side of the rachis and fit together tightly to form the disc.
The curved tail of Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise shimmers with a metallic effect caused by iridescent structural colors in the flat, narrow feather vane.
The one-of-a-kind head plumes of the King-of-Saxony are unlike any other feathers in the world. The barbs and barbules along one side of the rachis have fused into bluish-white tabs that look and feel like plastic. Ed Scholes explains details in this video.
The Red Bird-of-Paradise combines filmy display plumes like those of the Greater Bird-of-Paradise with two long, bare, plasticlike feather wires from the tail that outline and accentuate the bird’s shape during display.
Zoom in for a closer look at the equipment birds-of-paradise use to create their dramatic displays: their feathers. All those glamorous plumes and wires are modifications of the basic parts of a bird feather: the shaft, vane, barbs, and barbules. Can you see how they're related?