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Q&A: Birds of Paradise’s Ed Scholes

by Danielle Georgiou 10 Apr 2013 12:47 PM

On Thursday, National Geographic Live! brings its Birds of Paradise program to the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Guest blogger Danielle Marie Georgiou spoke with ornithologist Ed Scholes for a preview.


Guest blogger Danielle Marie Georgiou is the artistic director and choreographer of DGDG: Danielle Georgiou Dance Group. She also serves as the Assistant Director of the UT Arlington’s Dance Ensemble. And she’s a member of Muscle Nation.

On Thursday, National Geographic Live! returns to the AT&T Performing Arts Center with Birds of Paradise from photographer Tim Laman and ornithologist Ed Scholes.

I spoke with half of this incredible team (Scholes) ahead of their visit to Dallas (Laman was on an expedition to the remote Cape York Peninsula of Australia).

Danielle Georgiou: How did you first become interested in studying birds of paradise?

Ed Scholes: I know that Tim (Laman) has been fascinated by the birds of paradise since he first read about them in Alfred Russel Wallace’s classic book The Malay Archipelago as a young man. I became obsessed with going to New Guinea to study the birds of paradise in college after I saw the first nature documentary ever made about this spectacular family of birds (the film was called Attenborough in Paradise and was a life-long labor of love by Sir David Attenborough). I remember thinking that I just couldn’t believe there were birds like that hidden away in one of the most remote places on the planet and so little was known about them. On the spot, I made myself a promise to at least see one species of bird of paradise in my lifetime. I suppose I lived up to that one!

Tim and Ed have created two short videos for the Birds-of-Paradise Project website that tell the back stories for each of the researchers and how they came to the project. You can watch them here and here.

D.G.: Are there challenges ahead for researchers who want to study these birds? What sort of obstacles could they face?

E.S.: Yes, there are many challenges to finding and documenting even the most common species of birds of paradise. And those challenges are just that much greater when trying to document them all, which is why nobody had even attempted it before. To help people get a sense of some of the challenges, we produced a short video for the Birds-of-Paradise Project website called “By the Numbers;” all of these “numbers” were summarized by going through our field notebooks and tallying up different components of the field effort.

Ed Scholes in the field.

D.G.: How did you go about putting together the evening of photographs and videos you will present at the Winspear Opera House?

E.S.: Our presentation is just one part of the larger effort we went through to summarize the highlights of the more than eight years of fieldwork we did to complete the Birds-of-Paradise Project. With lots of help from our friends and colleagues at National Geographic and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we produced a book, Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds, a large traveling museum exhibition (now at the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C.), and a multimedia educational website (produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where Scholes works).

Plus, there was an article about the Birds-of-Paradise Project in the December 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine and another in the Cornell Lab’s Living Bird magazine. Through the process of developing and creating all these projects, we had lots of opportunities to craft and refine the stories and messages we deliver in our live presentations.

D.G.: Of all the developments that have come from this line of study, what has been the most surprising?

E.S.: Some of the best surprises came from documenting the species for which, before our work, little or nothing was known about the courtship display behavior of that species. We discuss some of these discoveries and many others in our book.

D.G.: Where there any specific challenges in capturing the footage?

E.S.: As with the challenges of observing and studying the birds of paradise, there are many challenges in capturing the photographs, video and audio recordings of the birds-of-paradise…

Two short videos created for the Birds-of-Paradise website do a good job describing some of those challenges. Watch ’em here and here.

D.G.: What has been the response to your discoveries? To be honest, I personally had no idea there were so many different species of these birds. It’s fascinating.

E.S.: The response to our work has been fabulous. Our National Geographic Live presentations have been selling out, the book has been very well received and the birds-of-paradise exhibition was named one of the top museum exhibits in Washington D.C. for 2012. And one of the project videos on YouTube has been viewed nearly 2.5 million times. That’s incredible.

But in general, I think a lot of people have the same response as you … they either didn’t know the birds of paradise existed or had no idea there were so many radically different species. This was one of the major goals of the project – to “reveal” these astonishing birds to the people of the world. I think people are amazed to learn that there are such fantastic animals out there that they’ve never heard about before. … Learning about them fills them with wonder about the natural world. And that’s one of our goals, too – to inspire people to care about the natural world through their own persona discovery of the most extraordinary birds in the world.

You can also get a good sense of the response people have from reading comments left on the Birds-of-Paradise Project Facebook page.

Birds of Paradise

D.G.: Many of the birds you document are endangered. Has your research increased awareness of their plight? Is there any chance for improvement?

E.S.: Actually, most of the birds of paradise aren’t technically classified as endangered, only a handful of the 39 species are. This is a good thing and really speaks to the potential we have for protecting the birds of paradise, as well as the many other unique species that share their New Guinean homes, before the situation is dire. That doesn’t mean there aren’t threats and that everything is fine … Things are changing very rapidly in New Guinea. Human populations are growing as the countries (Indonesia and Papua New Guinea) become more developed. Forests are being cleared for logging and agriculture, especially oil palm plantations, which are one of the biggest threats to the species that live in the lowland rain forests. Massive mineral and petroleum exploration projects are also threatening their habitats, with new roads being built and all the resources – like timber, food, electricity, etc. – that are needed to operate and support those industries.

But the biggest long-term threat to the birds of paradise is the same thing that threatens all biodiversity worldwide: global climate change. Birds of paradise are particularly vulnerable, because most species are found in the mountains, nearly all of them live on islands  -either the “big” island of New Guinea or one of the many satellite islands surrounding it – and none are migratory. This means that as climate changes and habitats change, the birds of paradise have little options for “tracking” their habitat as it moves with changes in climate.

D.G.: What do you think audiences will take away from this experience?

E.S.: I think they’ll go home in awe of the spectacular diversity of a part of the natural world they’ve probably not seen or heard much about before. I think they’ll be fascinated by the challenges of exploration in a remote part of the world and, hopefully, they’ll feel inspired to learn more, get involved and make personal decisions that will help keep species like the birds-of-paradise around for future generations to experience and appreciate.

D.G.: How has this research impacted you as a scientist? And as a person?

ES: This work has changed my life. I can count on two fingers the number people out of the 7 billion people on earth who’ve seen all the species of birds of paradise in the wild, and I’m one of them. And I feel extremely privileged to be one them and to be in the position of sharing everything that we’ve discovered, learned and experienced during the many years of hard work on expeditions to New Guinea.

In life in general, I rarely make a decision or think about anything, from how to raise my children, to how to spend work time, to the details of my social/political worldview without referencing my 13-plus years of experiences in New Guinea. And by this I mean the whole place, the landscape, the people and the wildlife -not only the birds-of-paradise.

You can hear Ed speak about his connection with the work on his video bio on the Project website.

D.G.: Without giving anything away, what are some of the outrageous behaviors/qualities of these birds that people can get excited about seeing for the first time?

E.S.: Watch this video, which is an introduction to the Birds-of-Paradise Project. It is be a great teaser for our presentation and won’t spoil it or give too much away.  There’s a lot more to see.