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Birds of Paradise: Some Assembly Required

October 15, 2013

By Helen Chappell

Our newest exhibition, Birds of Paradise: Amazing Avian Evolution, landed in the special exhibition gallery this week. To prepare for its opening this past Sunday, October 13, we’ve been busy getting the gallery ready, unpacking the crates, and putting it all together.

compound image of installation work

A tiny slice of the installation work happening over the past week.

Birds of Paradise is an exhibition all about these strange and wonderful birds and how researchers study them. Through sexual selection, birds-of-paradise have evolved incredible and sometimes downright bizarre plumage displays and courtship dances, sometimes looking more like fantastical sculptures than living creatures. Think peacocks turned up to eleven.

The exhibition grew out of a collaboration between an ornithologist and a nature photographer, so it’s beautiful as well as scientifically rich. One of the most striking parts of the exhibition, at least in my opinion, is a simple art gallery that showcases Tim Laman’s photographs of different birds-of-paradise species. The birds are so fabulous that they stand out without any interpretation.

pieces of the photography gallery

A shot of the gallery mostly assembled.

photography gallery image

The finished product. Photo by Matt Zeher.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to learn and do inside the exhibition. Come visit and you’ll be able to watch an oversized riflebird sculpture do its courtship dance, and you can even try a dance yourself at the motion-sensing “Dance, Dance, Evolution” station.

image of construction around bird sculpture

The riflebird sitting dormant during installation.

image of bird sculpture in motion

A riflebird action shot after opening. Photo by Nik Swain.

image of students playing dance game

Students test out their dance skills. Photo by Nik Swain.

Another part of the exhibition is dedicated to the research tools and techniques ornithologists use to study these birds. At one station, you can marvel at the complex setup researchers used to observe a male bird-of-paradise’s dance from a female perspective.

[Researchers have done an even more in-depth version of this for another showy bird’s courtship dance, literally strapping a camera on a peahen’s head to see what she’s looking at. Don’t wait around for this to happen with birds-of-paradise, though – peacocks and peahens are a good bit more tame and tolerant than their wild relatives.]

image link to NY Times video

Click on the image to watch the video at the New York Times.

We haven’t always had such sophisticated tools at our disposal. A different section of the exhibition is dedicated to the ways we studied and used birds-of-paradise in the past. Not only were they collected for science, they were widely hunted for plumage to decorate hats during Victorian times. A quick look around the exhibition or at the feather gallery on the Birds of Paradise project home page can tell you why. Though the large-scale feather trade has ended for conservation reasons, bird-of-paradise feathers are still used on a small scale by native New Guinean peoples for ceremonial wear today. You can see examples of headdresses and hats decorated with birds-of-paradise feathers in the exhibition.

image of victorian hat with plumage

Not exactly an everyday sort of hat (I promise there actually is a hat there somewhere underneath all the feathers).

The exhibition will be here through March 23, 2014. Admission is free for members, and only $6 (for adults), $5 (for seniors, students, and military), or $4 (for children 3-12) for everyone else. You can get tickets at our box office, or in advance online.

Come check it out! We’d love to see you there.


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