[COLOR] One of the striking things about the New Guinea footage that we see is that it’s just green, except for the birds, which pop. So how is that realized in your time in the forest? — [Ed] The very second species of Bird-of-Paradise I saw was Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise. And I can remember I was sitting on the edge of the court, it was muddy and brown and green all around and I’m hiding. Finally the male came down and he landed on the court about six or seven feet away from where I was sitting. That moment when he just showed up there and had this incredible yellow on the back of his neck and yellow-orange on his wings, and he turned and he caught the light and I saw this iridescent blue wires curling behind his tail, and it was, that’s it, that’s what this bird is meant to do, is to show those colors. The thing that’s most impressive to me about color in Birds-of-Paradise is not just that they’re colorful but it’s really about the wide variety of combinations of color and the different types of color. They have every shade of brown. You have off-whites and then you have stark, stark bright-white. You have all the different kinds of pigmented color, the yellows and reds and oranges. And then you have the whole range of structural colors from the blues to the more traditional greens and then all the iridescent blues and greens, and then iridescent reds and oranges as well. When you step back and look at them all, you see not just a rainbow of colors among the whole family, but that they’re used in such different ways; whether it’s from the colors of feathers on the sides of the body to the colors inside of the mouth or even the skin on top of the head. It’s just something that you don’t see quite as diverse in any other set of birds. Most people know, that when you’re walking out through a forest and you have a closed canopy of leaves, that it is pretty dark. And so a lot of the species that display on the ground or low in the forest, they’re looking for a natural light gap that existed before they started displaying there. A tree fell nearby, got a nice opening, and then typically what they would do is then choose a display site and then open it up even more by pruning leaves, inviting more light in and making the colors that they do have, show up better to the female. Looking at a lot of Birds-of-Paradise, a handful really stand out in that it’s the color that you see first as opposed to the shape. In Astrapia, it really is more about the shape. You’re seeing this long-tail bird that looks mostly black, and that’s because it’s got this set of really incredible colors but they’re iridescent colors and unless you’re in the right place you don’t see them as color. So that’s not one that stands out as “Oh, there is this incredibly colorful bird up in the tree.” Whereas the Paradisaeas or the King Bird-of-Paradise and its relatives like the Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise and Wilson’s, your first visual impression of them when you see them is color. Wow, that is red or look at that blue on the head or that yellow on the neck. Or the Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise, you know, it is not the wires that you see first; it’s the incredible yellow spot that’s up on top of a pole. Even when it’s just this tiny little thing that you’re looking at from a boat in the middle of a river, and there’s this sea of green and there’s this one little branch sticking up out of the forest and on top of it is something artificially yellow that’s stuck on there. And you put your binoculars on and you realize that’s a bird, that’s a male Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise. It’s only when you look at them up close that you see that there’s other things going on. There’s other subtle colors. Oh, look, he’s also got wires, he’s using that in the behavior. But there’s no doubt that, that color stands out in the forest. And that’s certainly the purpose of it, that females are attracted to that color, as something that can be seen from any perspective, from both close-up and quite far. Whereas lots of these other ornaments that have iridescent colors or unusual shapes to them, they don’t work from far away, they’re really meant to work only up-close. — [Interviewer] What is iridescent? What does that mean compared to regular? — [Ed] [laughs] Iridescent colors is colors that aren’t always the same. Meaning you look at it from one perspective and it might look like one color and it could be intense and bright, and then you look at it shifted just a little bit from another perspective and now it’s either a different color or perhaps it’s no color at all. It just looks black. And so it’s the property of, of having color that’s produced by the structure inside the feather itself. It’s not just color inherent in it, it’s not just pigments in there, and that changes depending on how you’re looking at it. — [Interviewer] Is black always no color or is black sometimes a precision tuned instrument? — [Ed] In many Birds-of-Paradise, black is clearly as much of a purposeful object that’s been selected for to be something as any color is. I think that’s most clear in the species that aren’t just black but they’re velvet black in that all the light goes in and almost nothing comes back out. Rarely do you see this ultra-black without some other color that’s being accentuated on top of it. And I like to think of this as the guy in the jewelry store who’s going to show you the diamond and he pulls out this nice black piece of velvet cloth to lay the jewels on because it makes them look that much more extraordinary. And often in Birds-of-Paradise, you’ll have this real intense patch of iridescent feathers surrounded by that velvet black. And the contrast between the two couldn’t be any more extreme. That’s really cool. [Explore more at birdsofparadiseproject.org, youtube.com/LabofOrnithology]

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You can find almost any color of the rainbow among the birds-of-paradise. Males advertise themselves with color—often several vivid colors combined—while females have brownish plumage whose main purpose is camouflage. This video explores the range of colors, two of the main ways birds produce colors, and how males display them to maximum effect. Filmed and photographed by Tim Laman. Explore more at www.birdsofparadiseproject.org