Perhaps they were fallen angels, these wingless birds. Their plumes were like haloes. Perhaps they moved as comets across the sky, in perpetual motion and only occasionally visible. They might be immortals in the flesh, or they might be the Phoenix. Whatever the case, it seemed impossible that they could land, given that they had no feet.
Theories sprouted. That the female must lay eggs in an internal chamber of her body where she incubates them until they are ready to begin lifetimes of continual flight. Or that they might rest after all, from time to time, using their featherless extensions like strings from which to suspend themselves from the branches of the highest trees. Perhaps they would twine these together while mating. Here is an image of one. See how it drinks the rain.
Some hypothesized that the birds would never submit to close study, so averse are they to the prospect of being sullied by this world. As context for these speculations, it can be helpful to consider the earliest arrival of these birds on the continent. They had arrived, after all, as the precious cargo of a colonial ship, far from their songs, their homeland, and their days of flight, with legs and wings removed.
Inspiration for this post: This morning I learned that today is the birthday of Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), the renowned swiss zoologist who published the Historia Animalium (History of the Animals), which was the most widely read natural history in Europe during the renaissance. It was summarily banned by the Catholic church as heretical. Having once been harshly scolded as a first grader in Catholic school, for depicting a unicorn at the center of my elaborate marker drawing of the Garden of Eden, I felt my sympathies drawn toward Gessner’s work. In my unsuccessful efforts to find a readable digital copy of this extensive work, I came across this article about early theories of birds of paradise. To his credit, Gessner was among the first to speculate that the birds must not subsist entirely on air, rain, and vast internal fat stores, but must eat actual food, somehow.