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NATURE: Birds Of The Gods

Airs Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Wilson's bird of paradise male displaying to females on twig above, Irian Jaya, Western New Guinea

On the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific lives the most striking and diverse group of birds on the planet. Birds of paradise defy imagination. Covered in spectacular plumage, each species within the Paradisaeidae family is distinct.

The male Magnificent Bird of Paradise looking about the forest.
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Above: The male Magnificent Bird of Paradise looking about the forest.

Lawes’s Parotia looking about for a female
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Above: Lawes’s Parotia looking about for a female

Male tribesman at the Goroka Show with the fine quills of the King of Saxony used as a nose piece, Papua New Guinea.
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Above: Male tribesman at the Goroka Show with the fine quills of the King of Saxony used as a nose piece, Papua New Guinea.

Some birds are patterned with feathers of bright yellow and green, some have flashy iridescent plumes that catch the light, while others have tails that extend three times the length of their body.

Bizarre courtship displays by the male birds show off their exquisite assets, as they dance, puff out, vibrate, hang upside down, stretch their wings, and even contort their bodies into completely different shapes in order to impress a nearby female.

The people of New Guinea see the souls of their ancestors in these creatures. The birds inform tribal ceremonies and their plumes are used as religious relics, fashion accessories, and currency.

The first Europeans to see bird specimens in the sixteenth-century were sure they had stumbled upon a family of birds direct from the Garden of Eden. Nineteenth-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace believed the birds “must be ranked as one of the most beautiful and most wonderful of living things.”

In "Birds Of The Gods," NATURE follows local biologists and conservationists, Miriam Supuma and Paul Igag, into the dense, mosquito-ridden forests in their quest to document the mating behaviors of several exceptional and elusive birds of paradise. Their work gives us new insights into the habits and population health of the different species.

Working with local tribes, they research which birds of paradise are most in need of protection, and the team is able to work toward curbing the hunting practices that put these delicate birds at risk. Don’t miss the strange, beautiful antics of a family of birds so remarkable, they truly do seem to be visitors from paradise.

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Video

Birds Of The Gods: Blue Bird of Paradise

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Above: A blue bird of paradise displays for local conservationist Miriam Supuma.

Video

Lawes’s Parotia Bird of Paradise: Look for me on the dance floor

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Above: I live to dance! I’m easy on the eyes, almost all black with green and gold iridescent breast plumes, but it’s my smooth moves that the ladies remember me by. Loves bowing, hopping, waggling, and adjusting flank plumes to resemble ballerina tutus. I should also mention I’m a neat freak. My dance floor never has extraneous twigs or leaves.

Video

King Bird of Paradise: Down-to-earth “living gem”

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Above: I’m the smallest of the birds of paradise but good things come in small packages. I’m bright red and white with blue feet. My nickname is “living gem” but I don’t let stuff like that go to my head. My idea of an ideal date is puffing out my plumes followed by some pendulum acrobatics. Not many birds can keep a beat like me.

Video

Superb Bird of Paradise: Oddball looking for love

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Above: I’m definitely not your average bird of paradise. Hobbies include snapping tail feathers and rearranging breast and back plumes to form an ellipse around my head. (You have to see it to believe it.) During my displays I may not look typically avian, but believe me, I’m one hundred percent bird. Looking for some open-minded females to hop around.

Video

Making of "Birds Of The Gods"

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Above: David Attenborough on what goes into filming wild birds of paradise and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of "Birds Of The Gods."

Video

Preview: Nature: Birds Of The Gods

Watch the full episode. See more Nature.

Above: In "Birds Of The Gods," NATURE follows local biologists and conservationists, Miriam Supuma and Paul Igag, into the dense, mosquito-ridden forests in their quest to document the mating behaviors of several exceptional and elusive birds of paradise. Their work gives us new insights into the habits and population health of the different species. Working with local tribes, they research which birds of paradise are most in need of protection, and the team is able to work toward curbing the hunting practices that put these delicate birds at risk.