Meet me at the Museum episode 2 video


Hello, I'm Dr Andi. And glad you could meet me at the museum. We're here today at Melbourne Museum's beautiful Forest Gallery.

I've got a quiz for you. What am I? I can't sing but I can dance a little. And I'm not Fred Astaire. I have the words magnificent, splendid, superb in front of my name. And I've influenced racing fashion like no other fashion item.

Yes, I am the Bird of Paradise.

Welcome to the secret past and present lives of the Birds of Paradise. There are some on display here at Melbourne Museum in the Science and Life Gallery. And later we're going to go upstairs to the collection store to visit some more.

I've got a crow specimen here from Museum Victoria's collection. Isn't he dressed beautiful. He's so Melbourne. But he's here to help me explain something: a recipe on how to make a Bird of Paradise. What you do is you take a murder of ancient crow-like birds. You put them in an isolated tropical paradise full of fruits and insects. You give it about 10 million years of natural sexual selection and evolution. And hey Presto! You end up with these.

The male birds use their spectacular plumage and perform intricate dances of seduction. These dances say, "Pick me, I'm fit, magnificent, superb and splendid." The superlatives in this case are an understatement.

We're behind the scenes here inthe Ornithology Collection Store at Museum Victoria. Now, there are over 40 species of Birds of Paradise and there are hybrids as well. And we know this from DNA analysis, museum specimens and of course bird enthusiasts. A lot of these specimens were collected by British collectors of the late 19th Century.

Europeans first encountered these wonderful birds in the 16th Century from Magellan's voyages. And for centuries the Europeans thought that they had no legs, like in this specimen here, which is the lovely Lesser Bird of Paradise.

The reason they thought this is the specimens were prepared in New Guinea to take back to the European kings and important people. And as the preparation was all about the feathers, and only used for native headwear, their legs and feet were taken off. They had no use. And they thought they continuously flew in the heavens, never landing. And they were dubbed Birds of Paradise.

Let's go back in time and visit the man, Alfred Wallace. It's the late 1800s and Alfred was a scientist, explorer and co-founder of the Theory of Evolution. We've arrived just at the time where he's examining the specimens ready to sell to John Gould. Now John Gould sold these specimens to Museum Victoria. Right now he's looking at the Raggiana Bird of Paradise.

Of all the animals and plants that Alfred Wallace studied, he had a passion for the Bird of Paradise. He called them "nature's choicest treasures". His work contributed to debunking the legless footless idea of Birds of Paradise. And he documented their fascinating behaviours.

Alfred Wallace collected thousands of specimens from the Indonesian archipelago. This is one of them. It's an Imperial Pigeon. And this one still has Alfred Wallace's writing on the specimen.

This is called the Magnificent Riflebird. Its iridescent features show flashes of colour as the light refracts off the feathers. It's like the effect you get on CDs.

Now come with  me into the mounted specimens collection store. Isn't this fantastic? You could say it's a paradise of birds. It must be a real cacophony in here at midnight.

I want to show you a specimen here. It's Wilson's Birds of Paradise. Isn't he lovely? And there's another one I really want to show you. It is the Raggiana, Papua New Guinea's national bird.

In the collection here at Museum Victoria we have a Papua New Guinean Bird of Paradise headdress. They were worn for ceremonial occasions and dance rituals. The choice of feathers have great cultural significance to the different clans.

Bird of Paradise plumes were a must-have for ladies' hats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the overhunting of them had reduced their numbers significantly. But the real issue today for the birds is the loss of habitat from logging and mining. May the paradise for these birds never be lost.

Well that's it. I hope you've enjoyed these beautiful birds. I've got to fly - like the crow. Meet you next time here at the museum.

About this Video

Episode 2 of our online video series about items from Museum Victoria's collection.
Length: 5:35