Perot Museum's Birds of Paradise Exhibit Captures Mating Rituals that Rival a Friday Night Uptown

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The Perot Museum of Nature and Science is a place of enchantment, especially now with the very organic exhibit “Birds of Paradise” taking place.

In addition to the usual touch-and-feel science displays aimed at children, the backstory of the exhibit is what makes it come alive.

When National Geographic sent a team of two men to New Guinea to study a very specific kind of bird only found in that part of the world, it had some idea of what would be photographed and videoed, but not in the scope actually reported by the scientists.

Imagine a dense forest without any path or any sort of clearing. Nobody has walked here before the men from the magazine, or possibly some local tribe barefoot in the sometimes muddy terrain. Tim Laman, the photographer, has a special cocoon he invented and drags up to the top of the trees with a pulling rope device, then hides among the tree limbs and waits.

And waits and waits, sometimes for hours on hand. He holds on and keeps awake with various snacks fueled by caffeine. He could fall from his perch. The nature of his work (ornithologist) is laced with patience, but this is also physically challenging, suspended at 300 feet above the ground in a precarious shelter.

He has another smaller cocoon he uses to hide his HD camera. He remotely takes pictures in silence. Everything about his work here is silence. The goal is to take photographs of the rare bird of paradise, the one with the long feathery tail trailing behind him. Not a peacock. No, this is an entirely different sort of bird, very difficult to watch and even harder to catch on film.

The birds love to shamelessly flirt their stuff. In the virtual rainforest of the Perot Museum, the New Guinea birds of paradise show off their mating rituals including that piercing tweet we humans have tried to reproduce in our own mating endeavors.

The birds of paradise live only in New Guinea and a small part of Australia. There are some 39 species and all are distinguished by their brilliant colors and for the very complex love displays of the males. This is how the females choose their mates.

The exhibit, sponsored by National Geographic and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, addresses all 39 species of the elusive birds. It is the first exhibit on the subject, and while the Perot is definitely geared for children, the amazing behind-the-scenes adventure of the team is worth a visit for all.

“Before you climb the tree in the morning, you must get some wax from your ear with your finger and rub it on the tree trunk. You must do this so the birds will come!” islander Eli Karey says, explaining photographer Laman's methods.

The sassy birds are definitely showoffs, yet Laman and Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientist Edwin Scholes had to make 18 trips to New Guinea over a period of eight years to cover enough sightings and documentation to provide the scientific achievement made available to us all.

“Birds of Paradise is a story of daring expeditions, world culture and the science behind the world’s most fascinating feathered flirts, told only as National Geographic can, with stunning imagery, compelling video, natural soundscapes, traditional wood carvings, artifacts and engaging educational activities for all ages,” says Dan Kohl, the Perot Museum’s interim chief executive officer. “Visitors can explore how these extraordinary birds evolved, their show-stopping mating rituals, strange behaviors and why they’re only found in one area of the planet.”

The strange but effective courtship dances of male birds are meant to assure the survival of the species, and the deployment of tricks and charms is baffling. Only humans could even come close in imagination in their love dances.

Some whistle sexy, like the pale-bill sicklebill, some whistle desperate, others gently coach the females, all are very loud. The brown sicklebill sounds so much like a machine gun that during World War II, invading Japanese soldiers thought they were under attack when the birds starting singing around them!

The deafening king of Saxony sounds like a tropical rainforest shower dripping down from the distant heavens. The blue and black parotia male’s ritual includes cleaning up a floor area with his long broom tail, then displaying his shape-shifting morphosis that includes head jiving, feet stomping and feathers flaring to make the bird look like a psychedelic ball of crazy love.

The team documented their voyages with some 39,568 photos taken after 200 commercial flights to their final destination. Local tribesmen worked with them to haul their wares on the trails through the dense rainforest Very few humans have seen those birds in real life and the exhibit’s videos are absolutely astounding to watch.

The Birds of Paradise exhibit runs at the Perot Museum, 2201 N. Field St., through Jan. 8, 2017. Tickets are $27 for adults; $19 for ages 2 to 17; and free for children under 2. For more info visit perotmuseum.org.

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