The power of beauty

This is the fifth post in the series Specimen Tales

Anand Krishnan writes ~

In meditating upon birds, one of the first thoughts to spring to most people’s minds is their beauty. For many, this beauty may arise simply in the mannerisms of the bird, a simple, understated elegance. Most commonly, however, our perceptions of avian beauty are tied largely to color, the varying hues of plumage that span a large proportion of the visible spectrum of light (and even the ultraviolet!). Many families of birds are gorgeously patterned in contrasting colors, with elaborate ornamentation. This has, in the past and the present, both elicited the fascination and wonder of humanity, as well as being the downfall of many species whose plumes are used as ornamentation. Across human cultures, this fascination with the beauty of birds is often reflected in rituals, traditions and folklore, rendering them an inextricable part of the fabric of society.

Scientists, too, have long been fascinated by beauty of plumage, which is often reflected in the scientific names given to species. Specific names such as splendens, splendidissima, magnificens, pulcherrima, exquisitus, formosus and many others are typically commemorative of the beauty of the species under discussion. Colorful plumage was, in the past, often associated with royalty or a regal demeanor, as the epithets regius and regalis convey. To a bird, however, brightly colored plumage serves essential life history functions. It may signal the presence, condition and quality of a bird as a potential mate and as a territorial competitor, both highly important in ensuring reproductive success. To this end, in many species, bright colors are typically found on males (although not always), the result of ‘sexual selection’, or females choosing brighter plumaged mates. This includes the bird under discussion in this post, the Rufous-bellied niltava. The scientific name of this bird, Niltava sundara, is derived in part from the Nepali name for the bird, as well as from the Hindi word for “beautiful”. Looking at the male of the species, strikingly patterned in iridescent blue, jet-black and reddish-orange, it is easy to understand the name. Occurring from the Himalayas to Indochina, this bird displays striking sexual dimorphism. The female is uniformly brown with a white throat patch and two small patches of bright blue. Writing in the Birds of Asia, renowned ornithologist John Gould stated that were it not for these markings, he might have hesitated to pronounce them males and females of the same species!

Figuer_AK_Post5
Skins of male and female Rufous-bellied niltava in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C.

Although I have never yet seen a Rufous-bellied niltava, I was lucky enough to find a Small Niltava Niltava macgrigoriae in Arunachal Pradesh, India a few years ago. I remain optimistic that I will find this bird some day, and study it at length with these musings in mind (plus, my father had a very close encounter with one in Sikkim five years ago that I remain jealous of to this day). In the meantime, if ever you should find yourself in an evergreen forest in the Himalayas, keep your eyes open for a niltava or three, and you might yourself understand the centuries-old human fascination with pretty birds.

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