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Remarkable feathers and beaks.

At the end of the 19th century, western feminine fashions had a fondness for feather hats. A particular preference was for the feathers of the bird of paradise, which arrived by the thousand from New Guinea. Up to 50,000 birds a year were caught for export until, in the face of disaster, their capture was first regulated, then banned, in the first quarter of the 20th century. Worldly women impressed elegant gentlemen with their flowing feathers to such an extent that feathers and femininity became synonymous. This was certainly an error: The magnificent feathers of the birds of paradise occur exclusively on the males and are their greatest sign of ornithological masculinity.

The male birds of paradise have a remarkably showy plumage, varying greatly from one species to another, which they exhibit spectacularly in the courtship display. Depending on the species, they may display individually or in a group. Some perform their display on the ground, but most species position themselves on branches in the leafy canopy. The position adopted by the males of the blue bird of paradise (Paradisea rodolphi) is especially surprising: they hang upside down.

The family of paradisaeids consists of about forty species, almost all from New Guinea, although some occur in northeast Australia and the Moluccas archipelago. They are extremely beautiful birds, between 4.9 in (12.5 cm) and 3 ft (1 m) long, including the often much longer tail of the male. Except for the individuals of the genera Manucodia and Macgregoria, which are monogamous and do not show sexual dimorphism, all the birds of paradise (Astrapia, Diphyllodes, Parotia, Lophorina and especially Paradisea) are polygamous with pronounced differences between males and females.

The archetypal bird of paradise is Paradisea apoda. The first example to be seen in Europe was brought by Juan Sebastian Elcano when he returned from the first circumnavigation of the globe (1519-1522). He received it without feet, the traditional Melanesian method of preparing the skins, from the hands of a chieftain in the Molluccas and this presentation gave rise to the erroneous belief that they did not have legs: some held that they came from the earthly paradise and thus did not need to walk. Since then, they have been commonly known in the West as birds of paradise.

Interest in the feathers of the birds of paradise came later, but not from Europeans. In the middle of the 16th century the French explorer Pierre Belon reported that the Janissaries in the Ottoman court wore them in their turbans, and in the 17th and 18th centuries their use became widespread in India and the Far East. This led to the beginning of systematic hunting of birds of paradise by indigenous peoples, who used blunt arrows without tips so that they did not damage any of the feathers. Hunting birds of paradise is difficult because they are timid and hide among inaccessible branches: They like to display, but only in front of the female they are courting.

Everything that is elegant about a bird of paradise is grotesque in toucans, which have the most disproportionate bills imaginable. The bills of the 42 known species of toucan, members of the family Ramphastid-ae, are prominent-colored horny structures supported by a dense network of bone fiber. The diet of these birds consists basically of juicy fruits, with flesh that could be eaten without problems with a smaller bill, but toucans are large animals and thus heavy, and a long bill is an advantage when it comes to obtaining fruit hanging from a thin branch. It is also thought that such a prominent bill served to intimidate other birds, whose nests area often raided by omnivorous toucans who take the eggs and young. However, these eating habits do not justify the diversity in bill coloration or even plumage from one species to another. Perhaps, as in the case of the birds of paradise, it does have a sexual role.

These showy neotropical birds with their squawking calls have become symbols of the American rainforest. The largest and most spectacular are the green and yellow toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) from the jungles of Central America and the Orinoco basin, measuring nearly two feet from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail, and the even larger yellow and white toucan (R. toco) from the Amazon. Other Amazonian species include R. tucanus, R. dicolorus, R. vitellinus and R. culminatus. The group of toucans also includes less spectacular birds, such as the aracaris (Pteroglos-sus, Selenidera) and the toucanets (Aulacorhynchus, Baillonius) which are present in all the American rainforests.

The hornbills, members of the family Bucerotidae, have a bill comparable with the toucan's in size and shape but the birds are not related: while the toucans belong to the order of the Piciformes the hornbills are members of the Coraciiformes (like the kingfishers and bee-eaters). In fact, the bill of the hornbill is quite different, although it is also very prominent. It has a strange, horny frontal protuberance in the form of a casque, or helmet, growing from the bill itself that may rise like a small horn. Hornbills are from the tropical regions of the Old World, with a range including subSaharan Africa, except the Cape and Madagascar, and southeast Asia as far as New Guinea. One of the most singular aspects of the biology of the hornbills is their nesting behavior: The female lays the eggs (one, or at most two) within a hole made in a tree trunk, but she cannot leave because the opening is almost completely blocked by the remains of food and excrement, except for a small hole through which the male feeds her.

A total of 45 species of hornbill are known, most of them from rainforest, or at least very common in this environment. The largest and most spectacular ones, up to 49 in (125 cm) from bill to tail, are the Asian species Buceros rhinoceros, B. bicornis and Rhinoplax vigil, with its characteristic long tail feather. The genera Anorrhinus, Aceros, Rhyticeros, Anthracoceros, etc., are also Asian. In Africa and India, species of Tockus are quite common; these are small hornbills with small or non-existent horns. The African hornbills of the genera Bycanistes, Tropicranus, and Ceratogymna have more conventional appearances. In any case, seeing a crying hornbill glide among the canopy or watching a toucan about his business in the branches is an unforgettable image of the equatorial rainforest.
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Publication:Encyclopedia of the Biosphere
Date:Feb 1, 2000
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