The Strange Bird That Transforms Into a Smiley Face with Legs

Chuck Banner | February 21st, 2017
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Probably nowhere on Earth is there such an amusing courtship ritual as that of the superb bird of paradise, Lophorina superba. Native only to the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific, the bird looks fairly average most of the time, at least for an island that hosts hundreds of brightly-colored bird species. On males, a black body is set off by teal iridescent, breast feathers, as well as a crown of blue on the head. Females, in contrast, are very drab and tan, masters of camouflage.

This color difference works out for the different goals of male and female birds of paradise: the male’s primary goal is to acquire a mate, and with males outnumbering females by a large ratio, competition is particularly fierce for this species. And as is true with lots of other animals, the brightest, flashiest males are the most likely to mate with the most fertile females and have the highest chance of producing viable offspring. In contrast, females benefit from their much more subtle color scheme. Since they’re solely responsible for building a nest and caring for young, they’re more likely to be the target of a predator, so they need all the help they can get in hiding.

It’s the shape that the male bird of paradise takes on that makes it sort of comical to us humans. At the start of a courtship display, the male fans out his feathers into an oblong shape. Its head becomes almost invisible in this sea of black, while the teal feathers of the head and breast create an iridescent blue pattern that resembles a smiling face. This black and blue smiley face hops up and down as the bird hopes to further draw in the attention of its potential mate. The bird’s just working toward its most important task in life, having offspring, but to us, the bizarre picture suggests that maybe Mother Nature has a sense of humor.

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