Walking through the “Birds of Paradise: Amazing Avian Evolution” exhibition at the National Geographic Museum can feel decidedly otherworldly.
Part of it is the backdrop: lush foliage in exotic rain forest canopies and a surrounding of dank green. But mostly it’s the birds, in all their preening excess, that make visitors feel as though they’ve landed in some groovy 1970s disco — birds with blue feet and green iridescent faces. They’ve got swirls on their backsides, which they know how to shake. They hop from foot to foot or — bam! — suddenly transform their plumage into a shape like a comet or a trippy psychedelic smile.
They are colorful, loud, dandified, freaky. There’s no doubt they swing.
The exhibition is divided into nine parts, including shape shifters and ground and branch displays. It has photos, touch screens, Wii-type interactive games and video and audio, plus a bird call station. It showcases all 39 New Guinea bird of paradise species for the first time and represents 18 expeditions over nearly a decade by photographer Tim Laman and Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientist Edwin Scholes, who first teamed up to chronicle the birds in 2004.
The extravagant plumage, bouncing courtship dances and bizarre vocalizations are examples of extreme evolution, made possible by the remoteness of the birds’ New Guinea habitat, which offers a plentiful food supply and contains few natural predators, an exhibition video says.
Their surroundings left the birds with lots of free time and nothing to focus on except their looks. “Life is less about the fittest and more about survival of the sexiest” according to the video, and only the “fanciest” male birds attract a female. When it comes to perfect sexual selection, these birdies have it all over U Street on a Saturday night.
In one interactive game, female birds, which are uniformly unremarkable, select the features they find most compelling — antenna-like plumes, or blunt-tipped feathers — which turn into adaptations that get transmitted and exaggerated over millions of years.
It’s a complex evolutionary process that roughly translates into: Commear girl. Lemme turn around and rub my 12-wire tail feathers across your face.
That twelve-wired bird of paradise mating ritual, or the extreme smiley face display of the superb bird of paradise, is captured in minute detail in photos and videos throughout the exhibition.
Although the photographer used film at the beginning, “digital cameras kept getting better and better,” Laman said. “The evolution of the digital camera in the last 10 years made it possible to get those shots in natural light.”
Laman and Scholes pioneered camera and point of view innovations that allowed them to capture the mating displays from the female birds’ vantage for the first time, which is often high above the dancing stage the male birds create, and tend, for themselves.
In the early 20th century, as the birds became prized for their exotic plumage, European women began wearing their feathers, or an entire dead bird, on hats. Backlash against their destruction helped spark modern Audubon Societies and conservation movements, Scholes said.
It’s that same fascination that kept Scholes and Laman returning to New Guinea and growing their initial National Geographic article into book and video projects. The National Geographic Channel will air a “Birds of Paradise ” documentary on Thanksgiving.
It was “the chance to explore New Guinea, to document this famous group of birds that are just not that well known, despite being famous,” that lured Laman. “We became fascinated in documenting that diversity for science,” he said.
For Scholes it was the notion that in a remote corner of the world, you can have “a moment where you think there’s something like this on our planet that I’ve never seen before.”
Exhibition at the National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW, will be on displaythrough May, 2013.