The King of Saxony’s Crown
Very recently I visited the Natural History Museum in London for the first time in six years. I was immediately transported back to the last time I was there, completely filled with awe and wonder.
Investigating many of the exhibits sparked my curiosity and so I thought I would share with you, in a series of posts, what I found interesting and the further information I have discovered as a result of my curiosity.
The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise
I am going to start with one of the most peculiar of my discoveries; Pteridophora alberti, or more commonly known as the King of Saxony Bird of Paradise. What caught my eye about this tiny bird was the huge pair of head wires attached above its eyes which are, in most cases, double the length of the bird itself.
These head wires consist of a shaft with fused barbs down one side, which have been greatly modified for their purpose; to attract a mate. As many of you may already know, in the animal kingdom, success is measured by the number of genes an individual passes down to the next generation, via the offspring, and the male King of Saxony Bird of Paradise has a very unusual way of increasing his chances of success.
The Dance of Love
A mating dance is not uncommonly associated with particular species of birds, however the mating dance of the King of Saxony Bird of Paradise is second only to that of the Magnificent Riflebird (which, let’s face it, isn’t a surprise based on its name). While many birds, like the Magnificent Riflebird and the Superb Bird of Paradise (again, another case of an appropriately named bird) show off their genetic prowess by puffing up their feathers and startling the poor female with bright flashes of colour, the King of Saxony Bird of Paradise takes a different approach.
A lonely male sits on a branch high in the canopy and waits for a female to pass by. When one catches his eye, he flies down to his chosen courtship branch and prepares for the performance. He gets excited. His first display is a bit of a warm up, he bops up and down on his branch rhythmically, trying to attract the much sought after attention of the female, competing with other males in proximity. Increasing in emotion, the male King of Saxony then begins his call. Starting with a low buzz, his mating call not only rises in volume but also in pitch, eventually building to an incredibly ear-piercing screech, which, combined with several clicking sounds, will hopefully win over the female.
However, the female has not yet been wooed, and the spectacle is only just beginning. As the now fully enthused male King of Saxony reaches the climax of his dance, he puffs up his feathers and his head wires begin to rise. The sound of buzzing heightens, the magnificent head wires are now extended above the top of his head. Screeching begins, the feathers on his head puff up, and he brings his head wires perpendicular to the sides of his head. With a screech that gives the rainforests of Papua New Guinea its characteristic sound, the male King of Saxony waves his head wires in a well rehearsed manner, as to make the female fall instantly in love with him.
The Evolutionary Success
This routine has been practised and perfected and, subsequently, passed down through the generations, but it has not always been like this.
In the forests of Papua New Guinea, the climate is warm, food is abundant (at least for the King of Saxony Bird of Paradise) and predation is at a relatively low level. Therefore, the evolution of the King of Saxony has not been guided by the need to thermoregulate, or hunt, or even blend into surroundings , but by its ability to attract a mate. The female King of Saxony Bird of Paradise finds the male’s outrageous head wires and ear-piercing screeches hugely attractive (whatever floats your boat I guess), so that is what has steered evolution to produce this incredibly interesting looking bird. For a male King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, the longer your head wires and louder your call, the more likely you are to succeed in passing your genes to the next generation, and the lack of parental help the males give the females, means the males can continue to give their genes to several females in a year, further increasing their success.
Furthermore, it is also as a result of sexual selection that the female counterparts of brightly coloured male birds are always so dull in comparison (sexual dichromatism). Females are picky when choosing a mate; they want the best genetic package for their offspring, so when it comes down to it, what the females look like doesn’t matter to male birds, as long as they get to pass down their genes. Females want the brightest, best looking and sounding male to hopefully pass strength, resilience and attractiveness down to their offspring, so the chances of survival are much greater. It has also been scientifically proven that, in birds, there is a positive correlation between brighter colours and better health. Females also need to be able to camouflage themselves when sitting on their eggs, which could be another explanation for sexual dichromatism.
In conclusion, what I first thought was just a small bird with a big hair issue, is actually an incredibly interesting example of sexual selection, and just goes to show how far evolution will go to ensure the highest chance of success in the animal kingdom.
 BIRDS OF PARADISE PROJECT. (2016) King Of Saxony Giant Head Wires. [Online] Available from: http://www.birdsofparadiseproject.org/content.php?page=77 [Accessed: 24th October 2016]
 ARKIVE. (2012) Superb bird-of-paradise. [Online] Availabe from: http://www.arkive.org/superb-bird-of-paradise/lophorina-superba/image-G129246.html [Accessed: 24th October 2016]
 LARSON, S. (2016) The King of Saxony Bird-of-Paradise’s Courtship Freakout. [Online] Available from: https://www.junglesinparis.com/stories/the-king-of-saxony-bird-of-paradise-s-courtship-freakout [Accessed: 26th October 2016]
 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. (2016) Why are male birds more colorful than female birds? [Online] Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-are-male-birds-more-c/ [Accessed: 26th October 2016]