It’s hard to find a more superb bird than the superb bird of paradise.
Males have an elaborate courtship ritual, during which they spread out their black cape until only a bright blue breast plate and blue eyes are visible in an all-absorbing blackness.
Then he puts on a dance, moving around a female in semi-circle motions until she’s wooed.
Until recently, scientists thought the superb bird was unique among the 43 birds of paradise that comprise the family Paradisaeidae. But in a new paper in the journal PeerJ , ornithologist Edwin Scholes and photographer Tim Laman detail a new addition: the Vogelkop superb bird-of-paradise.
A combination of fieldwork and museum analysis led to the conclusion that the Vogelkop is genetically distinct from the superb bird of paradise species, which is now named the greater superb.
The new species’ German name, which translates to “bird’s head,” was inspired by an isolated region of Indonesian New Guinea that’s said to resemble a bird head on a map and was once a German colony.
It’s Own Song and Dance
Like its cousin, the Vogelkop has some of the blackest coloring on Earth. The microscopic structure of their feathers absorbs almost 100 percent of the light hitting it. Both birds have bright blue markings that form what look like cartoonish faces when they try to seduce females.
But there are differences, too.
For instance, during its dance, the greater superb deeply bends its knees and bounces. The Vogelkop, however, shuffles its feet in quick little motions, effectively gliding from side to side.
“It looks like somebody has wound up a child’s toy and put it on a smooth floor,” says Scholes from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology.
The birds also sing slightly different songs: While the superb makes a loud squawking noise, the Vogelkop has a more pleasant, tonal call.
Scholes and Laman—a National Geographic explorer—first noticed the Vogelkop’s unusual vocalizations in 2009. The song was “radically different than the one we were familiar with,” Scholes says.
Their suspicions gained traction when, in 2016, a group of independent researchers found genetic variances in superb bird museum specimens, indicating the presence of distinct species.
Armed with the new genetic find, Scholes and Laman went in search of field evidence. Living in their forest base camps for up to months at a time, the team logged observed physical differences between greater superb and Vogelkop superb birds of paradise that confirmed they’re separate. For instance, Vogelkop birds’ feathery hoods have a different shape.
“Our evidence of how distinctive it is has cinched the deal,” he says.
A Paradise for Birds
The team expects to find more birds of paradise species in New Guinea’s biodiverse forests, which are so isolated and remote that human development has not encroached greatly on the birds’ habitats.
In the past decade or so, Scholes notes, responsible ecotourism has taken off, as the superb bird of paradise is “one of the holy grails of birding.”
He hopes future development will leave the region intact. “Before we’d find one super intrepid backpacker every five years; now there are caravans coming in, in small groups and birding quite intensively.”
The duo plans to continue researching birds of paradise in New Guinea for the foreseeable future, he adds. “Tim and I are committed for the long haul.”
This article was first published by National Geographic on 18 Apr 2018.