LITTLE TOBAGO, THE HOME OF THE BIRD OF PARADISE
Leaving historic Roxborough and continuing along the main road running northeast with the coast, one comes to Speyside, and just about two miles off the Speyside shore, is an islet: the quiet nature reserve called Little Tobago.
Little Tobago came to special attention on September 14, 1909, when a certain Mr Woolford Frist arrived in Port-of-Spain Harbour on board the Royal Mail Steamer “Magdalena.” His destination was Little Tobago and he was being sent there by Sir William Ingram who had recently bought the island. Sir William, who was aware of the trade in the plumage of the beautiful bird of paradise, and who feared the birds’ extinction as a result, wanted to rescue them from the droves of hunters who went to New Guinea to get their feathers to adorn ladies' hats. These hats fetched extremely high prices in London, Paris and other fashionable centres of the world.
It is not certain whether Sir William went to New Guinea himself, but 45 pairs of the birds were captured in their natural habitat — the Aru Islets of New Guinea — and they were dispatched to Little Tobago through Mr. Frist. Sir William knew the birds of paradise would have to remain there, for one of the peculiarities of these birds was that they could not fly very far. That was why, in fact, they had not left the Aru Islets.
No sooner had Mr. Frist got off the SS Magdalena than he journeyed on to Little Tobago and released the 45 pairs of birds. As of that day Little Tobago became famous as the Isle of the Bird of Paradise, although one cannot say that the fame is still justified for no one has reported the sight of these birds for a long while.
The last time the birds were seen was in 1958 when a journalist and a photographer from National Geographic magazine were sent to Little Tobago to see if these birds really existed there, and if so, to see if they could be lucky enough to capture the famous mating dance on film. The custodian of Little Tobago at the time, Jeremiah George, had assured the visitors he would help but that the birds were rarely seen. The three crossed the choppy waters between Speyside and Little Tobago to try to meet the bird of paradise. They hid one hour in the bushes, with the custodian calling “wark, wark, wark,” imitating the bird, but there was no luck. It was nearing dusk on Little Tobago, and time to leave. The custodian made one more try, calling “wark, wark, wark,” and then, depressed, the three got up to go. The journalist was not so depressed as he was skeptical.
Did the birds really exist there? The men were out of the bushes already and walking to the track to get to the boat when Jeremiah called “Wait!” and grabbed the visitors to keep them still. There was complete silence save for the murmur of the sea. Then came the distinct cry: “wark, wark, wark.”
Both the custodian and the visitors were speechless. The custodian was mainly relieved that he had saved the day. There it was, on a branch — the beautiful bird of paradise. From the time it appeared the photographer began clicking his camera frantically.
“You lucky,” the custodian whispered. "It’s a male. The male is the pretty one.”
“It’s really nice.”
“That’s nothing yet. So what if it had sun and you see the colour sparkling. And if you see the mating dance!”
“The mating dance!” the journalist said, “That’s what we came for.”
“That’s almost impossible to see. We’ll have to come back here time after time.”
LITTLE TOBAGO, THE MATING DANCE OF THE BIRD OF PARADISE
It was in that year, 1958, that the courtship dance of the bird of paradise was seen for the first time in the Caribbean, and it is believed it was also the first time it was seen outside of the natural habitat of the birds, the Aru Islands of New Guinea. And of course the place at which this was seen was Little Tobago, the islet not far from the Speyside shore.
The courtship dance was unknown, except to the natives of New Guinea, until the naturalist and explorer, Alfred Russell Wallace, caused excitement in 1857 when he wrote about it. He had presumably heard about it, for he saw it in the wilds of the Aru Islands after braving hardships of every kind to get to the birds’ “territory.”
The bird of paradise, although clothed in only two main colours — brown and yellow, with some green — is regarded as one of the most beautiful birds in the world. It is strongly built, and has heavy claws with which to perch — although its scientific name is Paradisaea apoda — the footless one. This name came about because the bird was first seen in Europe when stuffed, with the feet removed. It has strong feet but very weak wings, and so it cannot fly far. It is the male of these birds that is startlingly beautiful.
Incidentally, they got the name “bird of paradise” in the 16th century when the Portuguese explorer Fernando Magellaes (Ferdinand Magellan) brought cured examples back to Europe. They are fairly large birds, with trailing plumes so beautiful that the bird-hunters in New Guinea went berserk after them, giving the makers of ladies' hats in Europe a field day.
The National Geographic magazine, volume cxiv, no. 3, September 1958, published the account of the two Americans who told the story of the courtship dance. These men were the naturalist, Thomas Gilliard and the photographer, Fred Truslow. These two people (and apparently, the custodian of the nature reserve) spent months camping on the islet of Little Tobago waiting for the courtship dance, and the moment came, as Gilliard describes: "We were slumped behind the blind as dawn filtered through the forest. Several male birds of paradise began calling from near the top of the island. Soon a male called out distinctly a few yards from us."
After describing how the male near him began preening and wiping his bill on the branch, and how it kept up a dialogue of calls with another bird of paradise, he added: "The male in front of us shook his head like a wet dog drying himself, and resumed his preening, running his long tail wires methodically through his bill with a roundhouse sweep of his head. More interested now in displaying, he stretched each wing separately, tightened his body feathers, and emitted four or five deep wark, wark, wark, in rapid succession. This was the beginning of the mating dance. The bird quickened its call, fanned out its wings and put its head under them, raised and twisted its head, reared up as if to dive — in short it became crazed with excitement as its partner, a long-plumed bird, flitted to a nearby tree. And suddenly,” says Gillard, "both birds broke into an amazing dance, charging along the tops of the main display limbs (of the branches) in nearly perfect time. They reminded me of two golden circus poodles performing at the same time. Brought to an apparently unbearable pitch of emotion, the males broke off their synchronized pattern and seemed to lose partial control of their movements. As if crippled, they dragged their legs along the perch, shuffling sideways, but still scurrying head downwards."
Although that was the end of the dance that day, it was not the end of the courtship dance, which took on a new intensity a few days later. But this description is enough to show that the bird of paradise is one of the most amazing creatures in the world, and since 1919 has lived on the islet of Little Tobago almost unsung — that is, if it has survived until the moment. One is grateful to Sir William Ingram for sending to the tiny Aru Islands off New Guinea with thoughts of rescuing the species, and for having sent them to Little Tobago, thereby making that islet a second home to the bird of paradise.
- National Geographic Magazine, cxiv, September 3, 1958.
Copyright NALIS, 2007