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 (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, 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”, 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:
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 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.
- 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.
- P. Belon, L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux. Paris, 1555.
- C. Gessner, Historiae Animalium. Zurich, 1551-58, 1587. Best bits.
- U. Aldrovandi, Ornithologiae. Boloniae, 1599. Full scan. Birds-of-paradise section: pp. 806-816.
- J. Jonston, Histoire Naturelle et Raisonnée des differens oiseaux qui habitent le globe. Paris, 1773-74.