By the time a male bird-of-paradise reaches adulthood, he’s got all the building blocks of a display. But he won’t be successful until he learns how to put all those sounds, colors, and display feathers into the correct sequence that a female is looking for. This section examines how males choreograph their displays, from early practice sessions to mastering the finest details.
Dance: and the Birds-of-Paradise
It may look wacky, it may look funny, but these behaviors didn’t evolve to be wacky and funny.
They evolved through sexual selection by female choice to be precise choreographed things that these males do time and time again, day after day throughout their whole lives, specifically to be attractive to females during courtship.
Which birds-of-paradise dance?
At some level you can say all of them do something that could be interpreted as a dance.
But if you just hold up a pose and stand there static, while there could be the static-holding dance, I typically think of that not as a dance but just a pose, and dance is where there’s more motion involved or intricate steps.
Parotias are good examples of dance, not probably coincidental that they’re also the ones that dance on the ground like they’re on a dance floor.
They look a little bit more like the way humans dance.
When you see something like a greater bird-of-paradise, or one of the other paradiaeidaes bouncing around, up and down a branch and turning and pivoting and putting its head down and letting its cascade of feathers fall over its back, I mean that’s clearly a dance.
And even something like the wilson’s or magnificent bird-of-paradise, where they’re just doing most of their displays on a small little sapling and there’s not a lot of lateral motion.
There’s just movement up and down the branch, but there are more parts of it that are definitely more dance-like and less just presentation than others, especially right before actual mating; where there’s a little bit of motion this way, motion that way, motion this way, motion that way.
Small series of things that happen.
I would call that a pre-mating dance, even in that species.
One things that a lot of people don’t realize about bird-of-paradise is that they’re not born doing those courtship displays exactly the way that we see them and admire them as adults.
For the first few years of their life they probably don’t do anything that looks like a courtship display at all.
And then at some point in time the young males, they start going through transitions in their bodies and behaviors where they start doing rudimentary versions of it.
They’re hardwired from their genes, through their DNA to start doing courtship displays.
But yet they don’t have the feathers yet and they only do rudimentary versions of them.
But they begin to essentially practice them.
And they practice them in isolation by themselves.
They watch adult males perform the real deal to actual females and mating.
And then yet practice to each other.
One young male plays the role of the female the other one plays the role of the male.
This one practices his display and this one pretends like it’s watching and then they switch.
And this goes on for hours at a time during the day, for months out of the year, for many years, in many cases three-four years of this kind of practice behavior.
And so only then, when they transitioned into their first adult plumage do the start doing this thing that we recognize as the full courtship display.
So it’s this incredible combination of learning behavior and feedback between practicing with your own body movement and the acquisition of your costume, if you will, and being able to then put those motions into place in the way that they’re suppose to be; and the genetics behind that, both the behavior and the feathers.
I don’t think a lot of people have an appreciation of that’s what’s going on in these birds.
When we’re thinking about traits in birds-of-paradise, or at least the different traits in males that females are keying into and have selected on in the past, it’s easy to think of the feather traits, the unusual ornaments, the shapes, the colors.
But I don’t think everybody really thinks of behavior as being a trait just like any other, when in fact it is.
These complex behaviors are parts of complex sequences of events that are genetic in their origin and yet they also have this component of being refined and learned, so they have an environmental component.
But the thing is that’s true for all of those traits.
The feathers don’t always grow the exact same way that they’re genetically wired to because the food wasn’t available in the same way that year.
There’s an environmental component to those things that are easy to understand as traits as well.
So dance is not just practiced but it’s actually a genetic adaptation, and literally there are genes for ballerina dance or waggle?
There’s a gene for waggle?
I definitely don’t think we can simplify it to the point where there is a gene for a waggle or a gene for a psychedelic smiley face dance.
But there are thousands or hundreds or dozens, some number of genes that are involved in producing those things and they are heritable.
And that when a female bird of paradise selects a male for some component of his display behavior, that his sons inherit that behavior and some component of it.
And they will be more likely to be more similar in that behavior to their father than to other males, just like they will be in plumage or shape of their feathers.
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The bizarre dances of birds-of-paradise aren’t mere flights of fancy. Young males inherit those dance steps from their fathers, then refine them through practice and watching adults. Less obvious but equally important are the watchful females—look for them in these video clips. It’s ultimately their choices that decide which dances reach the next generation.
Magnificent Riflebird: Fluid Coordination
This is a male magnificent riflebird.
That vine he’s sitting on is his courtship display perch
They like to display on these near horizontal vines that are in the forest understory.
At first glance, the choreography of this species appears rather simple.
But in fact, as you’ll see, the dance actually has a real tempo to it, almost of a musicality.
And it really demands a coordinated physical effort on the part of the male to make it look just right.
So it all begins when a male first sees a female arriving near his courtship display territory.
The first thing he does is this crouching posture, his body’s almost parallel to his perch.
If her perceives the female moving closer he all of a sudden makes his incredible transformation.
He lifts up and he opens up his wings and he makes this incredible broad rounded shape.
And this is where the real complex choreography begins.
He’s going up, he’s moving his wings from side to side, he’s going down, his head is going back and forth.
And when the female lands he instantly turns and makes sure he’s facing her, his wings open, his head to the side.
Because it’s very important that the female sees him from the front side.
And at this point the female can move in.
A lot of times she gets close and almost adopts a similar pose to the male with her head up and wings a little bit open.
Presumably, she’s paying close attention to the movement of his head and the sound that’s being made by his wings.
And this is where there’s a real incredible amount of physical coordination going on.
Not only is the male hopping forward along this vine towards the female, but then he also does the same thing backwards where he has no chance to look down at his feet or look where the female is.
And finally the display ends with the male closing his wings and his bill pointing upward and his head moving back and forth in this metronome-like fashion.
It’s a really great example of how something like sexual selection by female choice can lead to the evolution of such an integrated package of highly choreographed movements and behaviors.
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The display of the Magnificent Riflebird shows how important minute details can be. The male abruptly fans one wing and then the next, using footwork to keep the female directly in front of him, where he can control what she sees. Interestingly, females may participate as well. Eventually, the performance subsides into a nearly motionless pose as the male waits for the female’s decision.
Paradise Riflebird: Practice, Practice
A common misconception about male birds-of-paradise is that they come out of the egg ready to dance.
But in fact, it takes many years to learn and refine the dance steps that are going to make them attractive to females.
It can take four or five years before young males get their incredibly ornamented feathers.
It’s during these years that the young males spend a lot of time hanging around the display courts and leks observing the displays of adult males and also practicing.
Sometimes they’ll even come together – two young males – and practice back and forth to each other.
On one of our expeditions we had a really unique opportunity to see some incredible practice display behavior of young male paradise riflebirds.
Over the course of several days four or five males, who had been feeding in a nearby fruiting tree kept coming together in pairs and doing displays back and forth to each other – one playing the role of the male and another one playing the role of the female, and then switching.
Watching them it’s almost funny at times because their pace and their cadence seems off, they seem a little clumsy.
But really, this is an incredibly important part of the lives of these birds.
This is where they learn and refine and practice what it takes to be a successful adult male.
On one occasion there was an adult make nearby and he was also foraging in the same tree.
And even though this wasn’t his main display territory he decided to show up on one of these practice branches and show these young males how it’s done.
But if these guys keep practicing, one day they’ll have the plumes and the moves to have a display territory of their own and become successful mates.
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Male birds-of-paradise spend their first several years looking very much like females. They’re brownish and they don’t yet have fancy colors or ornaments. They spend this time watching what makes a good display and then practicing the right moves. Females are so picky that practice is essential. Even adult males spend many hours refining their displays to be ready when their chance comes.
Carola’s Parotia: King of the Dance
The five species in the genius parotia are on the complex end of the chorography spectrum in the birds-of-paradise.
They combine their shape-shifting abilities with incredible foot work and exhibit a repertoire of dance steps that is without equal.
While each species dances during courtship, none has a set of moves as complex and extensive as carola’s parotia.
With up to six different dance moves, carola’s parotia is the undisputed king of the dance.
Here’s what he does.
First up is the “perch pivot”.
It’s called a pivot because the male is pivoting back and forth from side to side, left to right.
Males always do this on a horizontal branch somewhere above the display court.
In this case, the male’s also carry a leaf sort of as a prop, which it looks like he’s using to kind of add to the effect here.
The next move is the “head tilt”.
This display takes place on the horizontal perch, where the male hops up and gets next to the female.
And he tilts his head from left, to the right.
Sometimes he holds it to one side and flutters his throat feathers a little bit.
It may not look like much at first glance, but it’s a regular component of the courtship display.
Next up is a move called the “court hop”.
Typically a female will be watching from the display branch or very nearby at this point
The male starts on one end of the court and he does a sudden quick hop across the court in one direction, pauses and then hops back.
Next up is a move called the “swaying bounce”.
This is one of the more complex and physically demanding of all the dance moves.
It begins with the male standing in one place, usually right underneath the horizontal perch where the females are looking right down at him.
And he starts to bounce vigorously back and forth, back and forth while fluttering his wings.
Tim got a really cool photograph of this when he was using a slow shutter, but with a burst of flash.
And what we saw was that the male was actually moving his head in this near perfect figure eight or an infinity sign.
And this behavior goes on for a long period of time.
The males does another version of the “swaying bounce” where he closes his wings and then bounces more vigorously up and down, side to side.
Now comes the “hop and shake”.
Here the male stands in one place, dips down, lifts up, does a little hop, and he ruffles and shakes his flank plumes.
Also see how he shakes his head and flutters those whisker feathers under his chin.
The main thing about the “hop and shake” is that it’s the lead in into the quintessential parotia display – the “ballerina dance”.
The “ballerina dance” is so complex it’s actually a composite of four very distinct moves.
First of these is the bow, then comes the walk.
Then there’s a dramatic pause.
And finally come the waggle.
Now it’s important to note that what we’re seeing here is precision chorography.
These aren’t just a bunch of random moves arbitrarily thrown together to impress the females.
Rather male parotias have a specific set of dance moves that have to happen in the proper way and in the right sequence in order for them to be successful.
In other words, if the male parotia has four dance moves, he has to perform those moves in the right way and in the right sequence every time.
First move has to come before the second, the second before the third and so on.
Another way of thinking about it is that a male can’t just show up and go right to the “ballerina dance” if he expects to be able to mate.
On one hand, all of these moves can be rather amusing, sometimes quite funny.
But it’s also mind blowing to think that these birds have evolved the capacity to dance in such a complex and ritualized way for no other reason than for courtship display.
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The dance of the Carola’s Parotia is the most complex of all birds-of-paradise. The male has to go through five introductory dance moves before starting the main event, called the “ballerina dance.” All the while, four or five females may be perched above him, examining every detail of his performance before deciding whether to mate.
Life’s a Stage
No voice narration.
[old sounding theater music]
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Though the birds aren’t doing their displays for entertainment value, they have to hone their techniques as much as any human performer, spending hours practicing and maintaining their display courts. In this light-hearted piece we’ve added a musical accompaniment to several birds-of-paradise displays. Will all the dancing pay off? You’ll just have to watch.