The “Birds of Paradise” exhibit at the Perot Museum takes visitors on an extraordinary adventure to a distant island where 39 species of a colorful bird family flourish with unique courtship dance rituals and few predators.
Visitors of all ages can appreciate the photos and videos of these unique creatures throughout the exhibit, along with the story of how they have been photographed for the first time.
“This is one of my favorites because it’s a fantastic exhibition for all generations and it’s highly interactive,” says Seth de Matties, traveling exhibition specialist with National Geographic Museum. “Who doesn’t like birds? These happen to be some of the most extraordinary birds in the world.”
His job is to manage a dozen exhibits across the country and gets them set up with venues like the Perot. He also highlights one thing that makes this exhibit unique: a behind-the-scenes peek at how the photos and information were gathered on the remote island of New Guinea.
“This exhibit peels the curtain back on what went into capturing and documenting the content.”
Here’s what visitors to “Birds of Paradise” can expect from the experience.
Birds of Paradise
The entrance to the exhibit is like walking into a rainforest. Simulated trees create a canopy and birds can be heard calling overhead.
You meet the two men behind this project through video introductions. Photographer Tim Laman and Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientist Edwin Scholes traveled to New Guinea 18 times between 2004 and 2011 to study and photograph the birds.
“You really have a deep appreciation for the journey they had to make to some of these remote locations,” says de Matties, adding that Laman and Scholes were so far off the grid that there were limited resources and no roads.
You see a map of the island and a few places in northern Australia with each of the destinations labeled and video clips of the men exploring the island. Learn about how Laman climbed into the trees, sometimes 50 feet high, and built a natural blind to sit in for hours each day to capture the images in this exhibit.
Several video clips are taken from a small aircraft that allowed the researchers to fly over the area and get a literal bird’s-eye view.
In a room set up to resemble a Victorian-era study, visitors learn about how species in the birds-of-paradise family were introduced to Europe by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in the 1500s.
Magellan picked up a pair of bird “skins” — mounted greater birds-of-paradise with the wings and feet removed — as a gift for the king of Spain. Not knowing any better, Europeans assumed that the birds didn’t have wings and perpetually soared through the air, drinking dew from the sky as if they were from heaven.
You can walk through the study and open the drawers and cabinets filled with specimens, etchings and indigenous artifacts that made up the earliest museums.
Find out how Victorian trends and the studies done by French naturalists led to modern conservation practices.
Make your way to the dance floor where two players stand on markers to dance and imitate bird movements on a screen. People in the audience area can watch and play the role of the female, judging which dancer is best and voting for a winner.
You will see clips of real birds in action, strutting and performing their creative dance moves. Birds-of-paradise do not migrate, and species are separated by mountains, swamps and other geographic barriers.
This allows each species to have developed unique traits in both appearance and behavior.
Feathers and festivities
Visitors learn how feathers are used for indigenous cultural practices. See an elaborate ceremonial headdress on display and read about the traditions of locals, including their hunting habits and how they can hunt without disrupting future generations of each species.
“This is a really culturally diverse region,” points out Krista Moore, the Perot’s communications manager. “There are 852 languages spoken in that part of the world. It’s so remote that it’s one of the least-explored places.”
This remoteness is part of the reason that the birds-of-paradise have flourished in such a unique way.
See a mechanical, steampunk-style riflebird created by Chris Green Kinetics. The larger-than-life model moves at the touch of a button to spread its wings and puff its chest feathers. It was constructed from repurposed materials, including metal colander pieces, scrap metal and photo negatives from the original images captured by Tim Laman.
Watch a clip of a riflebird dancing for his mate and completely changing his appearance. Speed up the video or slow it down by turning a knob.
Out on a limb
See video clips that demonstrate how some birds-of-paradise species can perform their dancing feats in the highest treetops. See images of the most colorful species and learn how they get their colors from food sources and light reflection.
“These birds come in so many different colors, sizes and shapes — vivid blues, greens, reds, yellows, and they’re absolutely gorgeous,” says Eveline Kuchmak, the Perot museum’s manager of temporary exhibitions. “They dance on branches, on poles and some of them are even ballerinalike.”
All of these details serve a specific purpose — to attract a female — and each species does it in a different way.
Press buttons to hear 10 bird-of-paradise calls to learn how different each species sounds. Learn about sexual dimorphism — the reason that males have bold, bright feathers while females’s are dark and muted.
Researchers in paradise
Use touchscreens to select a bird species and learn what makes each one unique.
The screens are organized by the elevation at which each species lives: 0-1,000 meters; 1,000-1,500 meters; and 2,000-3,500 meters.
Then, play a touchscreen game of evolution to choose traits and create your own bird species. Learn about the bird-of-paradise family’s closest cousin, which might not be what you expect.
‘Birds of Paradise’
- Through Jan. 8.
- Perot Museum of Nature and Science, 2201 N. Field St., Dallas
- Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday
- General admission plus exhibit tickets: $19-$27
First Thursday Late Night: Aviation
5-9 p.m. Nov. 3
Teen and adult visitors learn about birds, planes and modern flight through hands-on activities inspired by “Birds of Paradise.” Free with general admission.
Birds of Paradise Sleepover
6:30 p.m. Nov. 4-8 a.m. Nov. 5
Children ages 6-14 can stay overnight at the museum to enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at “Birds of Paradise” with hands-on activities, a 3-D film and interactive science demonstration. Evening snack and breakfast are included. Registration is required. $50 per youth, $40 per adult chaperone.
Discovery Days: Birds
10 a.m.-4 p.m. Dec. 10 (opens 8:30 a.m. for members)
Examine feathers, listen to sounds and enjoy special hands-on activities that complement the “Birds of Paradise” exhibit. Free for all ages with general admission.