In one of those incredible miscalculations of early scientific observation, the first reports of New Guinea's Birds of Paradise considered them to be birds so regally endowed with fantastic feathers that they spent their entire lives in the upper atmosphere and fell to earth only when dead!!
The unbelievable fact was revealed by author David Quammen in his book, Song of the Dodo. The first European to see Bird of Paradise skins was apparently Portuguese diplomat Toma Pires in 1512 when he explored the Aru Islands. The natives offered the skins as trade and said they fell from heaven - the natives did not know how they bred. Often specimens reached Europe in mangled form as dried skins, with the feet and sometimes the head and wings chopped away in preservation, to further accelerate the distorted footless and heavenly idea.
Explorer Van Linschoten verified that no one had ever seen the birds alive because they spent all their lifetimes in the upper atmosphere, hence, "birds of paradise." They were footless and wingless, according to him, ethereal creatures of unearthly beauty and unearthly habits that fell to the ground only at death.
That misapprehension remained valid through the mid-eighteenth century when even our father of classification, Carolus Linnaeus, gave a formal scientific description, naming one of the two Aru species, Paradisea apoda, the footless. Part of that reasoning evolved from the fact that some birds were truly discovered to be wingless, like the Dodo flightless giant pigeon found on the island of Mauritius in 1638, and if some could be wingless, why couldn't some be footless?!
In the Rotary Nature Center of Oakland where I used to be a full time employee, there is a collection of study skins in the archives - an impressive array of animal skins prepared by a succession of naturalists and taxidermists dating all the way back to the 1800s. Feathers will last for ages if you can keep the feather eating insects away. The collection is really quite priceless and invaluable in helping with descriptive environmental education. Among the bird skins is one of those vividly colored bird of paradise specimens, and it, too, displays a great flock of feathers with no apparent appendages. You can only wonder about the history of that bird, how it was obtained, and how it was transported from a distant continent. Small tidbits of natural history without the full story can indeed often add fuel for runaway imaginative stories. Birds of Paradise from Heaven!! Incredible.
I was walking along the river musing about those incredible tidbits of historical ornithology when an Anna's Hummingbird zoomed out of the thickets flying straight up toward heaven until almost out of sight and then, even more startling, fell to earth in a breathtaking plunge! If I hadn't seen the upward flight, I could have believed the bird fell from heaven!
I knew from previous experience that the male hummingbird was displaying courtship gestures and was exhibiting an aerial feat in hopes of attracting the attention of the female. Nevertheless, I watched in fascination even though I've seen that display many times. What an experience it must be to fly straight up until only a speck, and then plunge straight down until inches from the bush tops before pulling out easily to regain a branch perch. The air master flashed brilliant red neck feathers as if to say, "Look what I did!" The finest human aeronautic stunts could not come close to such an exhibition!
Again I was at the riverside near the Feather River Nature Center when I saw a Green Heron flapping along in its slow, lumbering style. Usually that secretive bird flies low, erupting from waterside hiding places in subdued panic, but this particular oddity lifted high into the air, and as it approached the Table Mountain Bridge, it flew over the top as if to get a new perspective on life! Maybe it wanted a bird's eye view of the monstrous salmon thrashing in the river!
High overhead six Mallards were flying rapidly toward some destination known only to them, and I marveled at the different flying styles of the Green Heron and the waterfowl. Each bird flies so distinctively that birding experts can identify distant species at a glance.
We are reminded by those high-flying resident Mallards and Canada Geese that soon the migratory flights will descend down from the north and fill the skies with wild wings wedged in formation as they weave into the marshes. There is an unforgettable thrill in hearing distant honks high overhead and then see the string-like lines of geese in orderly formation laboring over the land. Soon, the migrants will swoop into California, filling the marshes of Gray Lodge, lakes and rivers, and even the city refuge at Lake Merritt in Oakland, with lively birds exhibiting the power of wings and the exercise of freedom.
To A Waterfowl
"Whither, midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far through their rosy depths doest thou pursue
Thy solitary way...
"...All day thy wings have fanned,
At that far height, the cold, thin atmosphere,
Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land,
Though the dark night is near.
"...And soon that toil shall end;
Soon shalt thou find a summer home, and rest
And scream among they fellows; reeds shall bend,
Soon, o'er thy sheltered nest..."
--William Cullen Bryant
We look up at the sky and perhaps see a duck flying high, or vultures circling over the landscape forever watching, or a Red-tailed Hawk scanning the fields, or gulls winging back to Lake Oroville in the evening, and we know those birds are blessed with wondrous wings that lift them above the surface of earth, enabling them to experience lofty grandeur we can only dream about. Blessed be the birds!
© 2000 Rex Burress
August 31, 2000