Review: Paradise of the Birders

Miriam Supuma

Miriam Supuma


The Nature program “Birds of the Gods,” narrated by David Attenborough, is about birds-of-paradise in New Guinea. Although separated by wide geography and culture, not to mention a different purpose and mindset, this video validates something I have been saying about Pagan magic for some time: that practitioners need to get out of the library and spend more time in the field. The 2011 documentary follows a team of biologists headed by Miriam Supuma as they study various bird-of-paradise species and interview tribal religious leaders on ways these leaders harvest, store and utilize bird-of-paradise feathers. Supuma is interested in determining the stability of bird numbers, studying the more rare bird-of-paradise species, and promoting sustainable cultural practices.

Blue Bird of Paradise, drawing by Richard Bowdler Sharpe

Blue Bird of Paradise, drawing by Richard Bowdler Sharpe

Toward that end, the scientists, all natives of New Guinea, bring video and recording equipment to an area infused with strong trespassing taboos, where most hunters fear to venture. The team reasons that chances of encountering rare birds are higher in this area. It would be interesting to know if those who ventured into this area voluntarily brought, or were pressed to accept, talismans of protection, or if special rites were performed before the trip. If this were the case, however, it is unlikely that participants would have volunteered this information, as scientific culture frowns so greatly on their own members harboring beliefs about the supernatural.

The documentary shows rare footage of beautiful bird plumage, intricate courtship dances, and interesting vocalizations, but for me the high point is a moment where Supuma is observing a courtship dance and makes an important connection. A look of recognition moves across her face as she realizes this bird-of-paradise display is as a traditional dance within her own tribal culture. The documentary cuts away to old footage of the dance being performed by a group, and the similarity is striking and undeniable. For me this was an exciting yet familiar moment, as I have felt this same spark many times while observing animals in their natural habitats. A moment of recognition occurs where the logic behind an arcane piece of folklore becomes clear. It was touching to witness someone else having that Aha! moment.

By directly studying animals and plants, folklore becomes more immediate and easier to remember and connect with. Other magical secrets that have not been written down become accessible. The value of studying nature for practitioners of a nature religion is unfortunately not understood by many, yet it cannot be over emphasized.

Birds of the Gods PBS Nature epidsode.

Watch Blue Bird of Paradise on PBS. See more from Nature.

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