Birds of Paradise, the popular name of any species or bird of the Passerine family Paradiseidae, almost entirely confined to New Guinea and the adjacent Papuan Islands, a single species being found in the Moluccas and one in North Australia. Pigafetta, who accompanied Magellan, is said to have been the first to make Europeans acquainted with these birds, round which from the first a cloud of legend gathered. The Portuguese called them Passaros de Sol, or birds of the sun; the Dutch traveller Linschooten (1553-1633) says that no one has seen these birds alive, for they live in the air, always turning towards the sun, and never lighting on the earth till they die, for they have neither feet nor wings. It was also gravely asserted that they lived on dew and nectar, that they took their rest "suspended to branches of trees by those threads in their tails," and that the young were hatched in a cavity on the back of the male. The legend that these birds were legless and wingless arose from the fact that those who first described them had only seen imported skins, prepared in native fashion by cutting off the limbs, skinning the body up to the beak, and taking out the skull, and Linnaeus commemorated the fable in the specific name apoda = footless, which he gave to the Great Bird of Paradise.
The Birds of Paradise are of moderate size, allied in structure and habits to the crows, from which they differ in the proportions of the toes, but characterised by an extraordinary development of plumage unequalled in any other family. The intensity of its colour and metallic lustre is not surpassed even by that of the humming birds. The family is usually divided into two groups - the Paradiseinae, True Birds of Paradise, and the Epimachinae, Long-billed Birds of Paradise (q.v.). The following are the genera and species of the True Birds of Paradise, as given by Wallace: -
1. Paradisea. - The Great Bird of Paradise (P. apoda), 17 in. or 18 in. from the beak to the tip of tail. Body, wings, and tail rich coffee-brown, deepening on the breast; top of head and neck straw-yellow, lower part of throat rich emerald with metallic lustre. The two middle feathers of the tail are webless, except at the base and tip, and spread out in a double curve. On each side beneath the wings there is ah erectile tuft of golden orange plumes. The females and young males have the whole plumage coffee-brown. From the Aru Islands and Central New Guinea. P. novaeguineae, from the south of New Guinea, is closely allied. The Lesser Bird of Paradise (P. papuana), probably ranging over New Guinea, is much smaller, of lighter brown hue, and with more yellow in the plumage. Its plumes are used for ladies head-dresses. P. finschi, from the south-east of New Guinea, the Red Bird of Paradise (P. rubra) from Waigiou and Batanta. P. decora, from the D'Entrecasteaux Islands. P. raggiana, from the southeast of New Guinea, and P. Gulielmi II, from German New Guinea, are other forms.
2. Cicinnurus. - The single species of this genus, the King Bird of Paradise (C. regius = Paradisea regia, Linn.), ranges over the whole of New Guinea, Mysol, and the Aru Islands. Length about 6-1/2 in., head, throat, and upper surface glossy crimson red, breast and belly white, marked off from the red of the throat by a broad metallic green band. On each side beneath the wing is a tuft of ashy feathers bordered with green, which can be erected into a semicircular fan. The two middle tail-feathers are webless except at the extremity, where the emerald web is coiled into a spiral disc. The females and young males are of a dull earthy-brown.
3. Diphyllodes. - The Magnificent Bird of Paradise (D. speciosa), from the north-west of New Guinea and Mysol, has a curious mass of straw-yellow feathers on the upper part of the back. The two middle tail feathers are elongated, and, crossing, form two circles. In paying court to the females the males erect all their feathers, the skin of the neck is inflated, and the head seems like the centre of a glory, formed beneath by the expanded feathers of the breast, and above by those of the yellow mantle, which are spread out vertically like a fan. Other species are D. wilsoni, the Red Magnificent, from Waigiou; D. chrysoptera, from the south-east of New Guinea; D. jobiensis, from Jobie Island; D. hunsteini, from the south-east of New Guinea; and D. Gulielmi III, with a green-tipped erectile fan, from the east of Waigiou.
4. Lophorhina. - The Superb Bird of Paradise (L. atra), from the north-west of New Guinea. The plumage is of an intense black, with bronze reflections; on the breast is a bluish-green shield shaped like an inverted V, and from the nape springs a larger V-shaped shield of velvety black feathers, with purple and bronze reflections. L. minor, from the south-east, is another form.
5. Parotia. - The Golden, or Six-shafted Bird of Paradise (P. sexpennis), from the north-west of New Guinea, is a small bird, with generally black plumage, glossed with bronze and purple. From each side of the head spring three shafts some 6 in. long, with an oval web at the tip, and on each side of the breast is an erectile tuft of soft feathers. P. lawesi, from the south-east of New Guinea, differs slightly in the form of the breast plumes.
6. Semeioptera. - The Standard-wing (S. wallacei) from Gilolo and Batchian, has ashy-olive plumage, with long creamy-white plumes springing from tubercles close to the upper end of the bend of each wing.
7. Paradisornis. - There is only one species (P. rudolphi), a form from the south-east of New Guinea, with bright blue side plumes, and the middle tail-feathers elongated and spatulate at the tips.
These birds are practically omnivorous, but fruit and insects constitute their chief food. Of their habits in a state of nature very little is known, beyond the fact that they are extremely active and more or less gregarious. The males of the Great Bird of Paradise hold what the natives call "dancing parties "in trees, and then display their charms to the female birds. While they are so occupied the natives shoot them with blunt arrows, so as not to injure the plumage. There is every probability that the other species show themselves off in a somewhat similar manner. The Texans give the name of Bird of Paradise to Milvulus forticatus, the Swallow-tail Fly-catcher, or Scissortail (q.v.).