Range:

Northeastern Australia, New Guinea, and surrounding islands

Habitat:

Rain forests and mid-montane forests, with a few species found in open savannas.

Birds of the gods

“Birds of paradise glisten like seldom glimpsed denizens of an Asiatic harem, who are clad in gold of many hues and dipped in the purple of dawn.”––Thomas Forrest, The Breadtree Fruit, 1784

Birds of paradise outshine other birds with their beautiful plumage and spectacular courtship displays. Their gorgeous colors and fantastical trailing plumes gave rise to incredible stories of their origins and habits, and the Malay phrase for the birds, manuq dewata, translates to birds of the gods. Not all birds within the bird of paradise taxonomic family carry the bird of paradise name; there are also sicklebills, astrapias, paradigallas, riflebirds, parotias, manucodes, and the paradise-crow.

Beautiful birds

No other bird group is so beautiful or so rich in variety of plumage and behavior as the birds of paradise. They are usually heavy-billed and rather stout birds, but there are many species, each having its own unique look and colors. Birds of paradise range from the size of a starling to the size of a crow. And that doesn't include the male's feathery tail that can be up to 3 feet (1 meter) long, depending on species!

In plumage, birds of paradise range from black to a painter’s palette of bright colors. Some of the feathers are as delicate as lace, while others shimmer with a metallic golden sheen. Some males have wattles, bright-blue mouths, or colored patches of naked skin. These birds of paradise look like something you could find only in an imaginary land.

The first record of birds of paradise in European literature was in 1522.
The greater bird of paradise's taxonomic name means footless paradise bird. 16th century Indonesians sent the bird's skins to Europe without the legs, starting the legend that the bird was from Paradise and flew without rest.
A male Raggiana bird of paradise is on the flag and stamps of Papua New Guinea. The bird is important in social and cultural activities, and its plumes are often used as ceremonial decoration.
Many zoos have received shipments of female birds of paradise, only to discover, several years later, that their females were really males! For some species, it takes many years before the male has his fanciful adult plumage.
The bird-of-paradise plant was discovered by Europeans after they’d already discovered the avian bird of paradise. Since the two resembled each other, the plants were named for the birds.
Humans have used bird of paradise plumes as symbols of power, wealth, or sexuality for centuries.
Some bird of paradise species top their nests with shed snakeskin. It is thought this might protect the nest from predators.

The San Diego Zoo began exhibiting birds of paradise in 1925; over the years, we have housed 19 species between the Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Notable hatchings
In 1968, a pair of lesser superb birds of paradise raised a chick at the Zoo, the first successfully reared young of any species of bird of paradise at the Zoo, and the first hatching of this species in the US. The first Raggiana bird of paradise chicks to be raised in North America hatched at the Zoo in 1981. In September 1983, the San Diego Zoo was presented with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Significant Achievement Award of our Raggiana bird of paradise breeding program.

In 1999, a divided aviary opened in the Zoo’s Lost Forest, designed specifically for breeding Ragianna birds of paradise. Guests can see courtship behaviors as keepers rotate males in with a nesting female just before she lays her eggs. In 2001, the Safari Park celebrated the hatches of the first magnificent birds of paradise in our collection.

Come see them
Currently, the San Diego Zoo is home to magnificent, superb, and Raggiana birds of paradise in various aviaries. The Safari Park has magnificent and superb birds of paradise as well, but they are off exhibit in the Park’s Bird Breeding Complex.

Fashionable birds?
Bird of paradise plumes were known and prized in Asia 2,000 years ago. Skins and feathers were very important to European women’s fashion over a century ago and are still used by the native people in New Guinea in their dress and rituals. During the 1880s and 1890s, some bird of paradise species were almost wiped out because of the fashion of using the bird's feathers to decorate hats. Up to 50,000 skins were exported each year. This practice was finally stopped in the 1920s, when all birds of paradise were protected from export.

Today, some hunting is allowed but only to meet the ceremonial needs of the native society.

Humans in paradise
Once the isolated, mountainous island of New Guinea was a bird's paradise. Few predators other than native humans lived there. But contact with the industrialized world has brought the threat of extinction. Islands, by their physical nature, leave many animals with nowhere to go when conditions change for the worse. The biggest problem birds of paradise face now comes from large lumber companies that clear all trees from rain forests for cardboard and hardwood products.

Currently, the blue bird of paradise Paradisaea rudolphi, Wahnes’s parotia Parotia wahnesi, and MacGregor’s bird of paradise Macgregoria pulchra are vulnerable.

We hope there will still be places in the wild for these avian Romeos to continue their courtship dances! You can help us bring bird species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.