I studied the evolution of the courtship phenotype in the genus Parotia for my Ph.D. research.  The genus includes about 4-10 species depending on species concept applied.  Males are largely jet-black, jay-sized, birds with a suite of bizarre plumage ornaments, such as the three elongate wire-like and racket-tipped feathers that protrude from behind each eye, the patch of iridescent feathers of the upper breast (called a breast shield), and the unusual body feathers on the upper flanks that extend beyond the torso.  Female Parotia and young males (who don’t acquire adult plumage until they are 4-5 years old) are cryptic in comparison with brown upper parts, paler barred undersides and, for the most part, only slight markings on the head.  Most species have cobalt blue eyes, but in Carola’s Parotia they are bright yellow. 

the bird of paradise

genus Parotia

New Guinea’s forest ballet

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Below are some images taken from video-screen captures.

Adult males perform a series of very complex courtship displays on terrestrial display territories (display courts).  Display courts are cleared patches of forest floor in which all leaves and plant material have been intentionally removed.  Courts have at least one horizontal perch, usually a branch or vine or occasionally a small fallen tree, from which visiting females observe male courtship display.  The most impressive of the Parotia courtship displays is the ballerina dance (above and right).  In this display, the male transforms himself from an otherwise typical bird-like form into something resembling a ballerina, complete with a tutu-like skirt.  The Parotia skirt is formed from specialized flank plumes that are lifted away from the body and positioned in such a way as to encircle the lower torso (not the wings as many people assume at first glance).

Plate by Benjamin Clock. Cover of The Auk October 2006.

copyright © 2007 Edwin Scholes III

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