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'Survival of the sexiest': Birds strut their stuff in National Geographic exhibition

Photographer Tim Laman has logged thousands of hours perched in the treetops of rainforests in Indonesia, New Guinea and Australia. These lush areas are home to all 39 species of birds of paradise. For eight years, 18 expeditions and countless heart-thumping climbs into the canopies, the wildlife photojournalist and Edwin Scholes, a scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, have been photographing the secret lives of the rare birds.

Laman and Scholes keep hidden and silent in the canopies to avoid detection, camouflaged in leaves and palm fronds woven together with vines. Here in the birds’ natural habitat, the duo witness bizarre behavior. Extravagantly plumaged male birds of paradise become loud, freaky, dancin’ machines, shameless exhibitionists that shake their tail feathers in a mating ritual to court females.

“Some do display their feathers on the ground, but some display in the treetops,” Laman says in the National Geographic documentary “Birds of Paradise.” “I spent many mornings trying to capture that beauty in the wild. That was always one of my motivating ideas.”

Footage from that 2012 documentary, released after Laman and Scholes’ long expedition, will screen as part of the traveling National Geographic exhibit “Birds of Paradise: Amazing Avian Evolution,” opening Saturday, May 27, at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale. The show spotlights Laman’s photos, the first to capture all 39 species striking their poses.

Rainforest-inspired decorations and wood carvings greet visitors at the exhibit’s entrance on the museum’s second floor, where audio and video footage of dancing male birds play on flat-screen TVs. That section empties into a gallery filled with interactive displays, maps, taxidermy and kinetic sculptures explaining how birds of paradise adapted and evolved in isolation. Most interactive displays are devoted to the birds’ mating dance.

“Everything that we see that’s extraordinary about male birds of paradise is solely the result of the selection pressures of female birds of paradise for their mates,” Scholes says in the documentary. “We might call this ‘survival of the sexiest.’ ”

When it comes to sexual selection, these birds are preening like 20-somethings on Himmarshee on a Friday night. The male Superb bird of paradise has an iridescent, wing-shaped breast shield, and to impress females, he folds up his black plumage until his body resembles a macabre, turquoise smiley face. The Western Parotia male prefers to whirl around, hopping from foot to foot, fanning out his side feathers like a tutu. And the Twelve-Wired bird of paradise boasts 12 whiskers that protrude from its yellow plumage, which are used to tickle females.

The birds havesurvived by sexual selection because the species was rarely hunted until the early 20th century, according to wall text in the museum. In one display of text and old photos, we’re told that early 20th century European women prized the birds’ exotic plumage, and wore hats consisting of bird-of-paradise feathers. Also among the decorations is a ceremonial headdress worn by the Huli, a Papua New Guinea tribe, that features a blend of four foot-long black tail feathers plucked from various birds of paradise, surrounded by a nest of synthetic fibers.

“It’s just tragic. An estimated 80,000 birds were exported from New Guinea from 1905 to 1920,” says Kim Cavendish, president and CEO of the Museum of Discovery and Science, on a recent museum tour. “I like to think we’re more enlightened now. The snowy white egrets that were almost driven to extinction in the Everglades for the same reason: to make women’s hats. When you see the mating rituals of these birds, you want them to survive as long as possible because they’re so spectacular.”

“Birds of Paradise: Amazing Avian Evolution” will open Saturday, May 27, at the Museum of Discovery and Science, 401 SW Second St., in Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $13-$16. Call 954-467-6637 or go to MODS.org.

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