List of Figures

April 22, 2010

Birds-of-Paradise: The Beginning.

As far as we know, the very first skins of birds-of-paradise were brought to Europe in 1522 by the surving crew members of the Magellan’s circumnavigation voyage. According to the diary of Antonio Pigafetta[1] (the only journal kept during the journey, apart from a formal logbook), the skins were a gift from the sultan of Bacan island (one of the Moluccas) for the emperor Charles V.

According to Pierre Belon’s Natural History of Birds[2], by the end of 1540s mounted birds of paradise “are a common sight in the cabinets of Europe and Turkey”. Nevertheless, when the first image of one was published in 1555 by Conrad Gessner in his famously bizarre “Historiae animalium”[3], it was totally unrecognizable:

The knowledge of the birds true appearance and habits hardly changed for the next century or so. A fine example of this is the set of illustrations in Ornithology, published in 1599 by one the most respected naturalists of the time, Ulisse Aldrovandi[4]:

While the first one is notable for being the first depiction of an identifiable species (Greater Bird-of-Paradise), the other three tell another story altogether. Agressive carcass preparation technique used at the time led the scientists to believe that the birds-of-paradise had no bones, entrails or legs. They were assumed to swim gently among the clouds, living only on sky dew and sun rays, never landing even to breed: female lays her eggs to a special cavity on the male’s back.

Some of these preconceptions proved to be very persistent. Illustrations to a book by John Johnston published as late as 1773[5] include both non-existent species (spot familiar faces!) and a barely recognizable King Bird-of-paradise colored to match a Greater Bird-of-Paradise:

But then you have to remember that European naturalists never saw a single alive specimen until 1825.


  1. A. Pigafetta, “Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo” (Report on the First Voyage Around the World). Paris, 1524-1534. Translated into countless languages and has never been out of print.
  2. P. Belon, L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux. Paris, 1555.
  3. C. Gessner, Historiae Animalium. Zurich, 1551-58, 1587. Best bits.
  4. U. Aldrovandi, Ornithologiae. Boloniae, 1599. Full scan. Birds-of-paradise section: pp. 806-816.
  5. J. Jonston, Histoire Naturelle et Raisonnée des differens oiseaux qui habitent le globe. Paris, 1773-74.

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