Few branches of natural history have been so exhaustively documented as ornithology, which is why any study devoted to a hitherto-uninvestigated ornithological subject is rare indeed. However, celebrated bird artist and researcher Errol Fuller has devoted more than 30 years to a thoroughly fascinating, ongoing study of a series of once long-forgotten but potentially highly-significant birds of paradise – which he has documented not only in various articles but also in a truly magnificent book, The Lost Birds of Paradise (Swan Hill Press, 1995).
Ethereal, gloriously-plumed cousins of the crow family, the aptly-named birds of paradise are native to New Guinea, various of its outlying islands, the Moluccas, and eastern Australia. In addition to the 40 species currently recognised by science, there are a further 24 forms that were once classified as genuine species but which have since been discounted as hybrids. Most of these, moreover, are known from only a handful of examples, and some from just a single specimen, often collected many years ago and never seen again - hence Errol's 'lost' appellation for them is doubly appropriate.
The majority of these erstwhile species were stripped of their taxonomic significance and reduced in rank to the lowly level of hybrids in a scientific paper published in the journal Novitates Zoologicae by avian expert Prof. Erwin Stresemann in 1930 (since then, six others have been discovered and duly demoted too). Surprisingly, for over 60 years these dramatic assessments were never seriously investigated or challenged, but have been rigorously re-examined in Errol's investigations.
Some 'lost birds of paradise' are certainly nothing more than exotic crossbreeds. In each of these cases, the composite nature of its plumage is very apparent and readily exposes the identities of the bird's parental species. The King of Holland's bird of paradise Diphyllodes gulielmi-tertii, known from several specimens obtained in various regions of lowland New Guinea, is a good example. Described in 1875, it is evidently a hybrid of the magnificent bird of paradise D. magnificus and the little king bird of paradise Cicinnurus regius - gorgeously combining the former species' erectile cape and lyrate central tail feathers with the emerald-tipped, breast-flanking feather fans characterising the little king.
Captain Blood's bird of paradise Paradisea bloodi is known from a unique specimen taken during jungle patrol in the northern end of Papua's Wahgi Valley on 20 September 1944 by the wonderfully-named Captain Neptune Blood. However, its identity as the pulchritudinous product of an illicit liaison between Prince Rudolph's indescribably beautiful blue bird of paradise P. rudolphi and Count Raggi's fiery-plumed P. raggiana is again betrayed by the visible intermingling of these two species' respective characteristics in its exquisite plumage.
Certain other 'lost birds of paradise', conversely, cannot be reconciled very convincingly with the hybrid identities proposed by Stresemann. A case in point is Bensbach's bird of paradise, an extremely distinctive, purple-plumed form that was dubbed Janthothorax bensbachi in 1894. It is still known only from the single specimen obtained in the Arfak Mountains of northwest New Guinea and presented to the Leiden Museum by J. Bensbach.
As argued by Errol, its current status as a hybrid is highly unsatisfactory - based entirely upon a very cryptic, terse statement by Stresemann that offered no explanation why he deemed this specimen to be a crossbreed between the lesser bird of paradise P. minor and the magnificent riflebird Ptiloris magnificus. It seems most unlikely that these markedly dissimilar species would interbreed, and they share few similarities with J. bensbachi. Hence Errol considers it possible that Bensbach's bird of paradise is a valid species after all, but one that may now be extinct, bearing in mind that it has never been recorded since 1894.
Equally mystifying is Rothschild's lobe-billed bird of paradise, christened Loborhamphus nobilis in 1901 and known only from two specimens reputedly originating from somewhere in Dutch New Guinea. Its lengthened breast and neck feathers were sufficient for Stresemann to nominate the superb bird of paradise Lophorina superba as one of its progenitors, and the bare flaps of skin on its face presumably inspired him to propose a wattle-faced species called the long-tailed paradigalla Paradigalla carunculata as the other one.
In reality, however, the complement of features exhibited by Loborhamphus nobilis is so complex, recalling so many different species, that its identification seemingly defies solution. Having said that, the correct solution in any mystery is usually the simplest one that covers all of the known facts - which, in this particular case, is the proposal that Rothschild's lobe-billed bird of paradise was indeed a genuine species, but is probably lost for ever.
Equally worthy of attention is Elliot’s sicklebill Epimachus ellioti – a long-tailed, silky-plumed bird of paradise of which the type specimen arrived in London during 1872 from an unrecorded New Guinea locality. In an attempt to explain this individual as a hybrid, Stresemann postulated that its parent species were the black sicklebill E. fastuosus and the Arfak astrapia Astrapia nigra. In short, Stresemann proposed that Elliot’s sicklebill was of intergeneric origin.
Yet although by no means unknown amongst birds, intergeneric hybrids are much rarer than interspecific ones. And as Errol has pointed out, Elliot’s sicklebill possesses certain noticeable characteristics not exhibited by either of its supposed parent species. These include: a distinct lobing of the mouth, a green breast with a wash colouration rather than a metallic one, and its diminutive body size – Elliot’s sicklebill is notably smaller than any accepted species of sicklebill or astrapia. Yet in stark contrast, bona fide hybrids are often larger than both or at least one of their parent species. Yet again, therefore, it is not inconceivable that this enigmatic bird is yet another distinct, valid species.
Ultimately, only DNA analyses are likely to solve the taxonomic tribulations engendered by such mystifying birds as these. Yet in view of the fact that they are represented only by (at most) a very few precious museum specimens which in some cases are over 200 years old - and therefore exceedingly fragile and/or not well-preserved – it may never be possible to conduct this necessary research anyway. In short, at least some of the lost birds of paradise are destined to remain exactly that, their secrets locked forever within a handful of desiccated, dead-eyed skins – sombre mementoes of what may once have been vibrant, valid species but which have now disappeared and are all-but-forgotten by science today.
Containing 40 full-colour plates, and a thorough review of every controversial species on record, The Lost Birds of Paradise remains the definitive work on this engrossing subject, and is an engrossing work of ornithological detection guaranteed to excite and entertain everyone with a passion for investigating mysteries and anomalies within the ever-surprising realms of natural history.
Moreover, in 2004 Errol announced that he had uncovered further evidence to support his thesis, in the form of certain 18th-Century bird paintings by French artist Jacques Barraband. Known for the accuracy of his avian illustrations, most of Barraband's subjects (which include several birds of paradise) can be readily identified with known species - but there are a few enigmatic, mystery birds of paradise painted by him that do not resemble any recorded species. One of these paintings, published by New Scientist in its 15 May 2004 issue, shows a black-breasted 12-wired bird of paradise, whereas the typical version has a yellow breast. Could Barraband's paintings thus include depictions of unknown species, or at least a further selection of controversial crossbreeds?
UNDISCOVERED AND REDISCOVERED BIRDS OF PARADISE
Returning to the subject of paradigallas – a possible undiscovered species of these superficially crow-like birds of paradise was sighted in 1992 by David Gibbs while exploring the uninhabited Fakfak Mountains in southwestern Irian Jaya, New Guinea. Indeed, the late Dr E. Thomas Gilliard, a leading bird of paradise expert and author of the authoritative work Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds (1969), was optimistic that unrecognised new species did still exist in remote New Guinea localities. And it should be remembered that one of this avian family’s most striking representatives, the ribbon-tailed bird of paradise Astrapia mayeri (whose male possesses a pair of white tail feathers measuring up to 3 ft long, i.e. three-and-a-half times as long as its combined head and body length!) was unnamed and undescribed by science until 1939.
Furthermore, what may be yet another undiscovered bird of paradise has been reported several times on Goodenough Island, one of the three large D’Entrecasteaux Islands situated just off southeastern New Guinea. Here is what I wrote about it in my book Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999):
“In 1953, Goodenough was visited by the Fourth Archbold Expedition (named after Richard Archbold, a millionaire explorer from the U.S.A.), and while there one of its members spied a curious bird, documented as follows three years later in the expedition's official report:
'In the forest one morning I saw a black bird the size of a small crow which seemed to be a bird of paradise but not Manucodia comrii [curl-crested manucode] or Manucodia keraudrenii [trumpet manucode], the only members of the family reported from the island. Our native hunter...described...a small black bird with a long tail, which dances in the treetops in the mountain forests of Goodenough, a description that suggests an Astrapia [long-tailed bird of paradise].'
“The next report appertaining to this unidentified species that I have on file appeared in the March 1976 issue of the New Guinea Bird Society's newsletter, and describes a sighting made by James Menzies, a renowned expert on New Guinea wildlife:
'On Mt. Oiamadawa'a, Goodenough Island 28 December 1975. Altitude about 1600 m, moss forest of Castanopsis, pandanus and tall bamboo. At dawn - a group of medium-sized black birds with long tails moving about in the forest canopy. Observed against the rising sun, without binoculars. Call a short explosive rattle.'
“Shortly afterwards, these two reports came to the attention of Australian ornithologist Bruce M. Beehler, who resolved to search for this elusive species when visiting Goodenough in 1976, and again in 1980. Unfortunately, he was unable either to observe or to obtain a specimen, so the Goodenough Island mystery bird currently remains just that - a mystery.
“Beehler documented his search in his book A Naturalist In New Guinea (1991), and, as he noted, there are quite a number of possible identities on offer. For instance, it may not even be a bird of paradise. Instead, it might be a species, known or unknown, of drongo (predominantly black, long-tailed crow-like bird), long-tailed starling, or honeyeater (meliphagid). Yet the Archbold report's author seemed quite convinced that it was a bird of paradise.
“For many people, the mere mention of these famous New Guinea denizens readily conjures up images of highly exotic, multi-hued, flamboyantly-plumed birds - which is why the extremely showy, ornately-arrayed astrapias, despite their long tails, do not yield a very plausible identity for the Goodenough bird. However, not all birds of paradise fit this popular image. Some of the smaller ones, such as the manucodes, are far less colourful, sporting dark metallic plumages instead of dramatic flourishes of vivid, ostentatious plumes. Certain manucodes have fairly long tails too, increasing their resemblance to this cryptic species.
“There is also one further candidate - for which we need to look towards the least known, and least spectacular, bird of paradise species. Indeed, so demure is its plumage that its English name has relegated it to a position midway between its more spectacular relatives and the decidedly dowdy species from which the birds of paradise are believed to have evolved.
“I am referring to the paradise crow Lycocorax pyrrhopterus, inhabiting the islands of the Moluccan archipelago, lying to the west of New Guinea. Measuring 14-17 in long and crimson-eyed, this bird of paradise is indeed outwardly corvine in appearance, its silky blackish-brown plumage relieved only by a faint greenish gloss on its body and a blue-black sheen on its long tail when viewed at close range, plus a buffish-white tinge on its inner flight feathers. Frequenting the hill forests of its Moluccan homeland, despite being quite a common species the paradise crow is very shy, and hence is rarely observed.
“Quite apart from its cry, which resembles a terse bark from a somewhat hoarse dog rather than the explosive rattle described by Menzies, its marked zoogeographical separation from Goodenough Island indicates that the paradise crow is not likely to be one and the same as the latter's black-plumed mystery bird. However, an allied, still-undescribed species of paradise crow with similar habitat preference and reclusive nature indigenous to Goodenough would yield a very satisfactory identity for this island's avian anomaly.”
Certainly, it is not impossible that long-vanished birds of paradise may one day be refound. Indeed, this is precisely what happened as recently as 2005. Just as evanescent as any of Errol’s examples was - until now - a beautiful species of six-wired bird of paradise known variously as the bronze parotia or Berlepsch's parotia Parotia berlepschi (but sometimes classed as a subspecies of Queen Carola's parotia Parotia carolae). Formally described in 1897 and named after German ornithologist Hans von Berlepsch who had chanced upon some taxiderm museum specimens, all male, it was a classic 'homeless' New Guinea enigma - its stuffed specimens had definitely originated somewhere in this huge island, but where?
Eminent American ornithologist Dr Jared Diamond had helped to fill in a gap, when in 1979 he had encountered what he considered to be some female specimens of this rarity, alive and well and living in the remote Foja Mountains of Irian Jaya (Indonesian New Guinea). In December 2005, however, a scientific team visiting these scarcely-explored mountains (and led by the afore-mentioned Australian ornithologist Bruce Beehler) achieved a notable first. When a male and female flew into their camp, their startled observers duly became the first scientists to observe a living male Berlepsch's parotia - its throat adorned in gleaming metallic plumage, its head sporting a striking crest of six disc-tipped, wire-like plumes, and giving voice to an unsettlingly raptorial growl, far removed indeed from the dulcet tones that one might expect to emerge from the throat of a paradise bird!