This is the male suburb bird-of-paradise. While he might not look all that suburb at first glance, he’s capable of one of the most jaw-dropping transformations which is unrivaled even among the other shape-shifting birds-of-paradise. People who’ve seen this display have called it everything from a space alien to my personal favorite, a psychedelic smiley face. But how did he get here? How does he go from something otherwise birdlike into something so unusual and extremely different? In order to better understand what’s going on we need to become more familiar with the basic parts of this bird. The most obvious of course is this delta shaped iridescent breast shield, and that, of course, becomes one of the key features of the ultimate transformation. The other features that help make this transformation complete, which are a little bit difficult to see here, are the feathers on the back of the neck, or nape. I call these the cape feathers. Beyond that, there’s a series of blue iridescent feathers that are on the top of the head, or the crown. And then there’s another set of feathers that really makes the illusion complete, these special feathers that emanate from the sides of the bill. So with the delta shaped breast shield, the cape feathers that lie across the back, the crown, and the special feathers along the bill, all of these are going to interact to make this illusion work. And here’s how it happens. When he sees a female coming near his display site, one of the first things he does is lift his iridescent breast shield up and extends it out. He also pushes the iridescent feathers on the top of his head forward so that they’re also visible to the female. Now here is where the real transformation begins. He takes those feathers that are lying across his back, the cape feathers, and he rolls them forward so that they form this black cone or ovoid shape that’s framing the breast shield and the crown feathers. When the cape is pushed forward, he actually lifts his head up so that his bill bisects the blue iridescent feathers of his crown. So now you have two parts of these crown feathers that have been divided by the bill. Now here’s where the real illusion takes hold because it’s these little feather tufts that come off the side of the bill that curve around at that point and actually make the crown feathers look more circular, like eye-spots. So what we have when we’re done is really just an optical illusion of what appears to be eyes and a mouth in this black oval face. And it’s all the result of this interaction between these specially modified feathers. Now if we move away from the female’s perspective in the front and take a look at the bird from the side, we can actually see how all these components are working together to create this fantastic transformation. You get a good look at how the cape feathers are lifted forward from the back of the neck to create this ovoid shape. And you can clearly see where the tuffs extend off the sides of the bill to create those eye-spots. So as if the transformation from something birdlike to something so otherworldly wasn’t enough, as he’s bouncing and dancing back and forth along the log, every time she moves he has to move to counter her to maintain the illusion and keep presenting the proper perspective. So when the female goes to the other side here and stops, this presents a really interesting opportunity for us because we can actually see something that the female never gets to see. On the backside of the cape there, you can actually see how it’s composed of many different individual highly modified feathers, perfectly orchestrated to create that ovoid cape presentation. I also like how he’s frozen here, you can actually see him breathing heavily. He’s trying to hold so still and maintain the illusion, he’s trying to gage what the female’s going to do but he’s actually quite exhausted. But alas, even the most impressive transformations don’t end successfully and he’s left alone on the log (laughter).

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When you see a Superb Bird-of-Paradise displaying, it doesn’t look like a bird at all. The change is so complete that females just see a jet-black disk with an electric-blue “smiley face” pattern. A close look at the transformation reveals how modified feathers on the head, back, and flank combine in an unexpected way to create a spectacular effect. Filmed and photographed by Tim Laman. Explore more at