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Jakarta Post

Chasing the '€˜cendrawasih'€™, or 39 ways to woo your lover

  • Christian Razukas

    The Jakarta Post

  /   Tue, August 27, 2013   /  12:33 pm
Chasing the '€˜cendrawasih'€™, or 39 ways to woo your lover

Stunning: Laman says that this shot of a Greater Bird of Paradise taken in the Aru Islands in Papua is among his favorites. '€œThe sun popped out from behind the clouds and I saw the picture I dreamed of happening before me.'€ © Tim Mann

Tim Laman is a Harvard-trained biologist, but he talked about a lot of numbers at the @america cultural center on Thursday when describing the eight years he spent chasing birds of paradise in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Laman and his partner, Cornell University ornithologist Edwin Scholes III, spent 544 days in the field, racking up 18 expeditions to 51 sites '€” and 200 trips by plane, 58 by boat and 33 by helicopter.

In the end, Laman, who is also a renowned National Geographic wildlife photographer, says that the key number is considerably less: '€œIt'€™s really all about 39 ways to woo your lover.'€

Laman is the first person to capture on camera live birds of paradise, or cendrawasih, from all 39 species, waiting as
long as 80 hours in a makeshift shelter to photograph a bird for just 90 seconds.

The famously colorful feathers of the male birds of paradise attract females, who are generally brown and non-descript and build their nests alone. Males are chosen to breed based on their plumage, which has evolved explosively '€” and gorgeously.

Laman'€™s expeditions, backed by National Geographic and the Cornell Lab for Ornithology, resulted in a book titled Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World'€™s Most Extraordinary Birds, published last year.

'€œThere were many [other] expeditions that went to shoot them,'€ Laman said. But those naturalists and explorers shot the birds of paradise dead and took the skins back to museums in Bogor, New York or London. '€œI was the first to photograph all the species alive.'€

Laman notes that the only shooting he does is with a bow and arrow '€” to send climbing ropes to where the birds are atop the rainforest canopy 50 meters up. '€œTo really get the right perspective, you need to get up in the trees.'€

Tree climbing and Indonesian fluency were skills Laman cultivated during field research for his doctorate in Kalimantan in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, Scholes, the only scientist studying live birds of paradise, spoke Melanesian Papuan and knew how to find cendrawasih in the rainforest, he adds.

In the field: Ed Scholes (left) and Tim Laman pose while waiting to see a bird of paradise in their blind, or temporary shelter. © Tim MannIn the field: Ed Scholes (left) and Tim Laman pose while waiting to see a bird of paradise in their blind, or temporary shelter. © Tim Mann

An eye for heights led to a real discovery when looking for the Bronze Parotia bird of paradise in the Foja Mountains in Papua.

The parotia displays on the ground for females who sit on perches overhead. Thinking he might be missing something, Laman built a bamboo ladder and placed a camera above.

On the last day of the trip, Laman hit paydirt: His camera revealed that the parotia displayed previously unexposed blue and yellow feathers on its back to the females above.

No one had observed that before, Laman said. The feathers'€™ use had been a mystery.

The birds are '€œone of those species that people can get motivated about because they are so beautiful,'€ Laman said, showing a video of a 12-Wired Bird-of-Paradise that used a dozen extremely long and filament'€“thin feathers extending from his wings to delicately caress a female.

The birds were introduced to Europe by sailors from Magellan'€™s voyage to circumnavigate the globe in the early 16th century, Laman said. Stopping in Ternate, the expedition captain '€” Magellan had been speared to death in the Philippines at that point '€” received a cendrawasih skin as a gift from the nearby Sultan of Bacan.

The birds were named after the odd way their skins were prepared, according to Laman: The wings and legs were removed to display their plumage. People in Europe, confused about exactly how wingless birds could fly, thought that the cendrawasih must float in heaven, calling them the birds of paradise.

Laman says that the most striking image from his trips was taken on Wokan in the Aru Islands, about 100 kilometers southwest of Papua, where the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was the first European to see a displaying bird of paradise.

He and Scholes were taken into the rainforest to find their target, the Greater Bird of Paradise, by local residents, who climbed into the mountains to meet them.

About 50 meters up near the birds'€™ display perch, the guides built the scientists an observation post with a floor comprising 12 bamboo poles '€” no more or the birds would know.

'€œI didn'€™t know the birds could count.'€ Laman laughs.

Laman then climbed another tree by the birds'€™ perch, where he hid a remote-controlled camera inside two leaves stitched together by rottan.

The next day, while capturing images of the birds around sunrise as they appeared on the perch to display, Laman said he saw a grand opportunity as a photographer. '€œThe sun popped out from behind the clouds and I saw the picture I dreamed of happening before me.'€

Laman said he was not too worried about snakes or other animals when in the field. '€œPart of life in the jungle.'€ More scary, he said, was when Scholes had his appendix burst on a separate expedition in the Papua New Guinea highlands with just two others.

'€œThey didn'€™t have enough help to carry him out,'€ Laman said. '€œThey had a satellite phone and were able to call one of their colleagues in town who was able to arrange for a helicopter '€” but they did not have a helipad, so the helicopter had to drop axes so they could cut down trees.'€

Doctors who treated Scholes after he was medevaced to Australia five days later said that the ornithologist had been lucky: The drugs he was taking to fight malaria and giardia likely had kept him alive after
the rupture.

Laman is upbeat about the future of the birds of paradise. While three species are endangered in Papua New Guinea, none of the 27 species endemic to Indonesia are, although several are threatened.

Hunting by local communities is not the biggest threat to the birds, although it would be nice if the government could crack down on it, Laman says. Destruction of natural habitats remains the biggest problem.

Laman is also upbeat on the potential for ecotourism to inspire local communities to bring people to see the cendrawasih with their own eyes. '€œPeople going to watch birds in the forest are not going to disturb the birds too much.'€


Laman'€™s talk can be viewed at and signed copies of his book with Scholes are available from

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