Images of cats from the British Museum collection, £9.99
Length: 70.000 cm (approx. of trade skin)
Raggiana bird of paradise donated by Lady Lyttleton, 1931
On loan from the Natural History Museum 2000.1.54 (Raggiana bird of paradise Paradisea raggiana);On loan from the Natural History Museum 2000.1.55 - 56 (Greater bird of paradise Paradisea apoda);On loan from the Natural History Museum 2000.1.59 (Red bird of paradise Paradisea rubra);On loan from the Natural History Museum 1996.41.518 (Lesser bird of paradise Paradisea minor)
Enlightenment: Natural world
Birds of paradise
From Papua New Guinea and associated islands, probably late 1800s to early 1900s
Beautiful and mysterious Birds of the Gods
Europeans first became aware of birds of paradise in the sixteenth century, after merchants returned from Indonesia with prepared specimens known as 'trade skins'. These skins were made to display the birds' fabulous plumes, and had the feet and wings cut off. As a result some Europeans thought that the birds did not have feet and spent their lives floating through the air, drinking dew and never touching the earth until their death. It was because of this that they were called birds of paradise. One species was even named Paradisea apoda, meaning 'the footless bird of paradise'.
The extraordinary beauty of these birds combined with the mysteries of their lifestyle meant that they were sought after by collectors, who often obtained them through the plume trade. The great collector Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) had a number of specimens in his own collection.
Although some complete skins, including the feet and wings, had come to Europe from the early 1600s, scholars found it difficult to interpret the function of the males' courtship plumes and the nature of the birds' displays from only a few specimens. Indeed, these birds can be so secretive and dificult to observe that the displays of several species were only filmed for the first time as recently as 1996. Others are still not well known.
E. Fuller, The Lost Birds of Paradise. (Shrewsbury, Swan Hill Press, 1995)
C.B. Frith & B.M. Beehler, The Birds of Paradise (Oxford University Press, 1998)