Saturday, 30 August 2014

stranger in paradise

I visited the city museum and was treated to a very interesting guided-tour of a special exhibit on the birds of paradise of New Guinea, their environs and the cult of reverence which native humans and colonialists formed around these spectacular birds—nearly as elaborate as the mating-rituals that the males perform to court females. Immature males incidentally do not develop their fancy and impossibly impractical plumage until they reach about five years of age and often hang out in the audience of females to learn the dance moves and how to be suave and sometimes get in on the action by proximity and having the drabber colours of the females. Many of the taxidermic exemplars came from the collection of Austrian orientalist and mountaineer Heinrich Harrer’s (whose autobiography Seven Years in Tibet was adapted for film) expeditions to New Guinea, a former German colony, which were undertaken as a mission of goodwill after the war to reintroduce Europe to these exotic lands.
The exhibit also featured a lot of footage from David Attenborough’s documentary on natural curiosities and the birds’ dances of passion—which includes a lot of housekeeping and pruning to make sure there’s no distraction on stage for the birds’ performance. The worshipful behaviour of humans towards the birds of paradise is also something pretty extravagant—the plumage decorating native headdresses and the fashion-plates of nineteenth-century Europe, sadly endangering the more flamboyant breeds along with encroachment of their habitat, usually restricted to specific climes. Aside from feathers in hats, another totem of the animal existed in pelt-form and was an avian vehicle of wealth and dowry. These skins were the entire bodies of the bird preserved, except for the feet—dispatched with as unaesthetic, and Western explorers and settlers believed for several centuries (until the Enlightenment) that the skies above New Guinea was home to purely celestial beings—writing embellished treatises on how the heavenly birds lived off of oxygen and dew and were even configured to fly in tandem to form a flying nest with their bodies. Before Charles Darwin described his finches of the Galápagos, biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, studying these birds of paradise and noticing specialisation, conceived of natural selection—independently, inspiring Darwin to publish his works. I wonder if such conclusions—all things considered, would be intuitive or take a special genius to recognise.
The case of these birds especially with their extreme plumage and instinctual vanity is special take on survival of the fittest—as they are not the most agile or robust creatures of the forest and sport ornamental features that seem more of a liability (like huge antlers that are a heavy burden to carry and could get hooked on something) than a natural advantage, but such decorations and displays are what the lady birds like, maybe because the males have managed to survive despite these handicaps.