A common misconception about male birds-of-paradise is that they come out of the egg ready to dance. But in fact it takes many years to learn and refine the dance steps that are going to make them attractive to females. It can take four or five years before young males get their incredibly ornamented feathers. It’s during these years that the young males spend a lot of time hanging around the display courts and leks observing the displays of adult males and also practicing. Sometimes they’ll even come together – two young males – and practice back and forth to each other. On one of our expeditions we had a really unique opportunity to see some incredible practice display behavior of young male paradise riflebirds. Over the course of several days four or five males, who had been feeding in a nearby fruiting tree, kept coming together in pairs and doing displays back and forth to each other – one playing the role of the male and another one playing the role of the female, and then switching. Watching them it’s almost funny at times because their pace and their cadence seems off, they seem a little clumsy. But really, this is an incredibly important part of the lives of these birds. This is where they learn and refine and practice what it takes to be a successful adult male. On one occasion there was an adult make nearby and he was also foraging in the same tree. And even though this wasn’t his main display territory he decided to show up on one of these practice branches and show these young males how it’s done. But if these guys keep practicing, one day they’ll have the plumes and the moves to have a display territory of their own and become successful mates.

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Male birds-of-paradise spend their first several years looking very much like females. They’re brownish and they don’t yet have fancy colors or ornaments. They spend this time watching what makes a good display and then practicing the right moves. Females are so picky that practice is essential. Even adult males spend many hours refining their displays to be ready when their chance comes. Filmed and photographed by Tim Laman. Explore more at www.birdsofparadiseproject.org