Whilst listed within the family Paradisaeidae, the taxonomic position of MacGregor’s bird-of-paradise has long been under scrutiny and it is now widely accepted that this species is not a bird-of-paradise at all, but is in reality a giant honeyeater. Genetic evidence confirms that it is a member of the Meliphagidae family and is most closely related to the common sooty honeyeater (Melipotes fumigatus). However, this has yet to be formerly accepted and as a result MacGregor’s bird-of-paradise is still found within Paradisaeidae and takes a misleading common name (4). It lacks the splendour of the bird-of-paradise species, with a crow-like body shape, black feathers and no extensions on the tail feathers, or the elaborate head-dress. The eyes are decorated with yellow semicircular wattles and there is a large ochre patch on each wing. It is a noisy bird that calls incessantly with a rapid jeet jeet and a longer, softer peer(2).
The taxonomic misnomer was noticed long before genetic studies confirmed the true place of MacGregor’s bird-of-paradise. It was noted that the species is consistently monogamous – something very unusual in the Paradiseaidae. It is also highly faithful to roosting and feeding sites, returning day after day although it has never been seen to defend its territory(6). It appears to be partially nomadic as its reproductive cycle is dependent on the unpredictable fruiting of the podocarpDacrycarpus compactus, upon which it feeds. However, this species may also feed on other fruits in low bushes and on the ground, and will look for arthropods amongst vegetation (5). It is most commonly sighted between 3,200 and 3,500 metres above sea level (5), perched in the open or on the forest edge (2).
An inhabitant of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea’s mountain tops, MacGregor’s bird-of-paradise lives in small isolated groups. It is most common, and very tame, above 3,000 metres in the Star Mountains where the Ketengban people protect it for cultural reasons. However, it is extremely rare on Mount Albert Edwards in the Whartons, with just one sighting since 1933 (5).
Almost completely reliant on the fruiting of its major food plant, the podocarpDacrycarpus compactus, MacGregor’s bird-of-paradise is limited to subalpine forest and small areas of forest in alpine grassland regions (5).
The absence of MacGregor’s bird-of-paradise from many parts of the Central Highlands leads researchers to believe that there have been a series of local extinctions in the species’ history, probably caused by habitat changes and hunting pressures. It remains a popular game bird as it is tame, conspicuous as a result of the flash of colour around the eyes, and regularly returns to the same site, making it a very easy target. New mountain roads have caused further fragmentation of its habitat and have also made it easy for hunters to gain access to it (2).
MacGregor’s bird-of-paradise is protected by law in both its range states, but this protection is difficult to enforce in remote areas and is not a strong deterrent, as poaching continues. Scientists are interested in monitoring the movement of birds between sites to gain an understanding of the population structure and whether the isolated populations are interbreeding. It is hoped that large, locally-managed forest reserves can be created that focus on preventing hunting and can run ecotourism ventures using MacGregor’s bird-of-paradise as a high altitude flagship species. Educating land-owners is also a high priority, to ensure that they help to protect any birds frequenting their land (2).
Cracraft, J. and Feinstein, J. (2000) What is not a bird-of-paradise? Molecular and morphological evidence places Macgregoria pulchra in the Meliphagidae and the Cnemophilinae near the base of the corvoid tree. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 267(144): 233 - 241.
BirdLife International. (2001) Threatened Birds of Asia: the BirdLife International Red Data Book. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK.
Beehler, B. (1980) Notes on the behaviour and ecology of MacGregor’s bird of paradise. Australian Ornithology, 83(1): 28 - 30.
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