bird of paradise, common name for any of 43 species of medium- to crow-sized passerine birds of New Guinea and the adjacent islands, known for the bright plumage, elongated tail feathers called wires, and brilliant ruffs of the males. Their common name is derived from 16th-century Spanish explorers, who believed them to be visitors from paradise. The standard-winged bird of paradise, Semioptera wallaceii, is brownish with a glimmering green gorget at the throat. At the end of the 19th cent. over 50,000 bird of paradise skins per year were exported; many species were almost wiped out. It is now illegal to import skins into the United States. The 13-in. (32.5-cm) twelve-wired bird of paradise, Seleucidis ignotus, is found in mangrove swamps, and has brilliant yellow plumes and an iridescent green and black throat, which are displayed to the female during courtship. The smallest member of the family is the scarlet king bird of paradise. It is only 6 in. (15 cm) long and has green plumes and blue legs. Many species are polygamous, and the drab-colored female assumes all the nesting duties. The biological basis for the elaborate coloration and displays seems to be the need for an accurate means of distinction and recognition between species, since hybridization is disadvantageous. Birds of paradise are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Passeriformes, family Paradisaeidae.
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