All 39 Species of Birds-of-Paradise, Caught on Incredible Video

This is how the natural world should be shared.

Feb 7 2013, 4:40pm

Birds-of-paradise are some of most stunning examples of evolution in the animal kingdom: They have stunning plumage and incredible intricate songs and dances, which all evolved to win mates. Now, thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Geographic, all 39 species of bird-of-paradise in New Guinea's mountainous rainforests have been captured on film in all of their glory.

I've discussed before how birds-of-paradise (and juggalos) are shaped by the incredibly complex evolutionary process. Their remarkable specificity–a neon green feather here, a long, complicated warble there–is a miracle, shaped over millennia as various sexual preferences were randomly exploited and propagated in isolation on the small Pacific islands the birds call home. 

A curlicue feather doesn't just appear that way, but maybe, ages ago, birds with proto-curlicues (just nubs, really) attracted mates more easily, had more kids, and some of those kids had longer curlicues than others, and the longer ones had more kids, and so on and so forth until we've got crazy looking birds making a racket in the forest. That's how evolution works–whatever is "better" for a specific situation rises to the top, whether its more efficient lungs, a circulatory system, or, in this case, psychedelic plumage.

If you've had enough of my breathless rambling about how I think the birds are amazing, let me also say the production of the above clip is just as mind-blowing. Capturing images of all 39 rare, hard-to-find species required a projection spanning 18 expeditions in 8 years, with 544 field days, 109 blinds set up, and a total of 39,568 photos, largely run by the duo of evolutionary biologist Edwin Scholes and wildlife photographer Tim Laman.

The end result is an absolutely badass site put together by the Lab of Ornithology that's basically a complete resource for learning about birds-of-paradise, and the best part is that everything has video explanations. It's hard to understate how much effort it takes to produce video like this–eight years of climbing through jungles and waiting in tiny hidden boxes to hope to see a little bird, all of which needs to be funded somehow–and both the Lab and National Geographic deserve praise for going whole-hog on the project. That type of effort is the only way anyone could produce such a killer six-minute explainer video as the one below, and the Cornell site is full of them.

This is how the natural world should be shared. Museums are great, and textbooks are wordy, but to see nature in all of its exquisite and complex beauty takes a video project this committed and, compared to something like Planet Earth, this in-depth and information-driven.