Birds of paradise: aesthetic wonders that dance and move and stimulate ideas

By Alex Christodoulou

It’s impossible to watch a mating dance by one of the forty-two species of birds of paradise and not marvel at what magnificent and quirky creatures they are. Popularised by the intrepid filmmaking of Sir David Attenborough, the vibrantly coloured and visually striking birds have a long history of being admired, but also traded, by humans.

In a recent podcast produced by the Sydney South East Asia Centre (SSEAC), Dr Jude Philp talks about the birds of paradise trade, and the existential threat they faced (and are still facing). Philp is a co-editor of Recording Kastom and senior curator of the Macleay Collection at the new Chau Chak Wing Museum, which houses approximately thirty taxidermied birds of paradise from New Guinea and its off-shore islands, as well as an additional thirty riflebirds – the only bird of paradise that is found in Australia.

A bird of paradise with brown plumes, grey belly and a long thin tail with green round feather perched on a woden stand. There is a museum tag attached to the bird'se foot.
Cicinnurus regius (Linneaus, 1758), collected between 1870 and 1890. On exhibition in Object | Art | Specimen, Level 3 Chau Chak Wing Museum. Image NHB.2317 ©Macleay Collections.


Interestingly, Philp identifies the thirst for comprehensive biological knowledge and the trading of birds of paradise between museums as one of the critical forces that drove the species to near extinction. Coupled with a loss of habitat, this trade took birds of paradise perilously close to being wiped out by the turn of the twentieth century. And despite some crucial protections coming in for the species since then, illegal trade of the birds continues today.

In Plumes from Paradise, Pamela Swadling provides a comprehensive history of the birds of paradise trade. She traces its origins to the European trade boom of the 19th century, where the skins and feathers were prized by milliners for their beauty. They were made into hats that adorned the heads of fashionable women, first in Europe and eventually around the world.

However, as Swadling notes, Australia made its stance clear in 1908 by prohibiting plume hunting in the then Australian-administered Territory of Papua. The Dutch and German colonial authorities introduced similar policies for New Guinea. While it took time, these measures later influenced the conservation push aimed at protecting birds of paradise in West Papua and Papua New Guinea. 

First published in 1996 by the Papua New Guinea National Museum, a new edition of Plumes from Paradise was released in open access in 2019. As well as detailing the plume trade, the book focuses on how the trade of other products – including spices, woods, resins, shells and pearls – impacted the people, economy and political history of New Guinea and its surrounding islands up until 1920.

Philp describes birds of paradise as ‘aesthetic wonders that dance and move and stimulate ideas.’ These aesthetic wonders not only stimulate ideas for their potential mating partners, but have piqued the interest and desire of humans for hundreds of years. It’s crucial that they be protected, so that they continue to captivate their fellow birds of paradise, as well as people, for centuries to come.

Alex Christodoulou is a word-obsessed sportswriter who currently specialises in horse racing. He will soon complete the Master of Publishing at Sydney University, and is eager to see more diverse voices in Australian print.