Bird Watcher's General Store

Birds of Paradise Real - 05/09/02


Dear Bird Folks,

Our class was discussing something called the "Bird of Paradise." Some of us think that it's a real bird, while others feel that it's some kind of fancy flower. Who is right?

-Zach and Brenna, Grade 4
Eastham

Yo Zach and Brenna,

Was there any money bet on this question? Because I can be bought off to answer this question in favor of the highest bidder. No, forget it, they probably don't encourage elementary school students to gamble anymore, not like the old days. Political correctness once again takes the fun out of life.

Since there is nothing in it for me, I might as well come clean and tell you that both groups are correct. The bird of paradise is both a plant and a bird, but not at the same time. Actually, "birds of paradise" is a family of birds comprised of 43 species. Just like there are many kinds of hummingbirds, there are many kinds of birds of paradise. All of them live in an area from eastern Australia, north to New Guinea, west to Moluccas (wherever that is).

If you think that birds from that part of the world should be colorful, you would be right. Birds of paradise is a family of birds that has the most ridiculous assortment of ornate feathers to ever grow out of a bird. They make punk rock stars look like librarians. Most males in this group have long, colorful feathers that they use to attract females (what else). The males have breeding areas called "leks." During the mating season the males strut and flash their fancy feathers on these leks in hopes of attracting a female. Their actions are like a scene at a school dance.

As you can guess, birds this beautiful are endangered. Years ago, many birds were killed so the foolish women of Europe could wear them as hats. That's right, hats. How many kids in your class would like to walk around the playground with dead birds on their heads? I don't know what the Europeans were thinking. The natives also used the birds of paradise for headdresses and currency. In recent times it is our old pal habitat destruction that is making things tough for birds of paradise. Even though the birds are protected, like so many other forms of wildlife, they still are in trouble.

How did this family of birds get such a funky name, you ask? The natives would cut off the dead bird's feet to be used in some weird local ritual. So when the early traders first obtained specimens of these birds, the birds had no feet. Birds with such extraordinary beauty, but without legs and feet, surely could not have originated on Earth where they would have to walk or perch in trees. So they assumed that these beautiful birds came from heaven or paradise. Evidently the tropical heat must have been getting to some of these early traders, causing them to think a little goofy.

I don't really know much about sissy plants, so I can't tell you a lot about the plant, bird of paradise. I do know that the flower is usually bright orange and it grows off a big green stem. They are native to southern Africa, but are found growing wild almost anywhere it is warm, including Florida and California. You may also find them at your local flower shop, which is good information to know with Mother's Day coming up.

There it is, Zach and Brenna, one name for two different things. But clearly the bird variety is by far the more interesting, of course. Some day when you are watching TV and flipping past The Discovery Channel, stop for a second, they may be having a nature program on birds of paradise. However, if the program is about the plant version, just keep flipping.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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