It took countless hours high in the treetops for photographer Tim Laman and Cornell University ornithologist Ed Scholes to record the secret lives, bizarre displays, and dazzling courtship antics of these stunning birds.

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  • This video was filmed on November 1, 2012 as part of the National Geographic Live! Lecture series at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C.

    In 2004, Cornell University Lab of Ornithology scientist Edwin Scholes and field biologist and National Geographic photographer Tim Laman set out to complete the first comprehensive study of all birds-of-paradise. After 8 years and 18 expeditions they have amassed photographic and video coverage of all 39 known species and documented several new behaviors. Found only in New Guinea and parts of Australia, the birds-of-paradise are a case study in the evolutionary power of sexual selection. Their fantastic plumes and bizarre courtship displays are a result of millions of years of sexual selection at work in an environment with plentiful food and no natural predators.


    • A team on assignment: documenting all 39 species of the Birds-of-Paradise (start-04:03 min.)
    • Birds-of-paradise and the assignment by the numbers (04:04-06:21 min.)
    • The importance of female birds-of-paradise in the evolutionary process (06:22-07:30 min.)
    • Natural selection vs. sexual selection (07:31-08:11 min.) 
    • Video: Wilson's bird-of-paradise clearing it's court (08:12-09:06 min. )
    • Video: King of Saxony bird-of-paradise courtship display (09:07-10:47 min.)
    • How the Black Sicklebill bird-of-paradise changes its shape (10:48-12:19 min.)
    • Video: Superb bird-of-paradise (12:20-13:49 min.)
    • Bizarre Behavior: Parotia's court (13:50-14:53 min.)
    • Video: creating a blind for observation (14:54-15:38 min.)
    • Capturing a Parotia courtship display from the female perspective (15:39-17:59 min.)
    • Video: Parotia courtship display from above (18:00-21:09 min.)
    • Working with locals to build blinds in the canopy (21:10-23:36 min.)
    • Video: communal breeding site in the canopy (23:37-24:24 min.)
    • Capturing beauty in the wild (24:25-27:43 min.)

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  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    adaptation Noun

    a modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence. An adaptation is passed from generation to generation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: adaptation
    bird of paradise Noun

    family of birds (Paradisaeidae) mostly native to the jungles on the island of New Guinea.

    evolution Noun

    change in heritable traits of a population over time.

    ornithology Noun

    study of the biology and behavior of birds.