Teaching Children About the Birds and the Snakes: A Mammalogist Goes to Papua New Guinea

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Published on June 13th, 2013  |  Discuss This Article  

Wilson's Bird of Paradise

Tim Laman’s The Birds of Paradise — a photo exhibit — will be suspended from the trees lining Charlottesville, VA’s downtown mall from May 17 to July 7. Thinking of bringing your kids to the exhibit? Our own Matt Durnin, Asia-Pacific Conservation Science Director, offers tips on how to spark a child’s interest in nature.

Sometimes, it’s hard to impress children. Even when you’re a scientist who deals with exotic animals. And yes, even when you’re talking to your own children.

My young son Owen loves snakes. So naturally, when I told him I would be going to Papua New Guinea soon, his first question was, “Do they have snakes there?”

Why, yes they do! In fact, Papua New Guinea is home to over 80 species of snake. The country is also home to many different species of the Bird of Paradise — these, more than snakes, had me excited to visit Papua New Guinea.

But Owen was clearly into the snakes angle. He asked a sober follow-up: “Do they have poison and kill people?”

I’m a mammalogist so snakes aren’t my specialty, but I replied that, yes, I believe they had venomous snakes there. (Later research revealed that 6,000 snakebites are treated each year in Papua New Guinea, where snakebite mortality is 100 times higher than it is even in Australia.) But not to worry, I told my son; I’ll be safe and not let any snakes bite me.

“Good,” Owen said as he promptly returned to his Legos.

“Wait a minute mister, don’t you want to know why your daddy is going to Papua New Guinea?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said. So of course, like any good parent, I forced him to listen.

“Don’t you want to learn something fun about wildlife?” I asked.

My son’s a bit of a practical joker and so he smiled and giggled for a second before finally relenting. “Okay, Daddy. What is it you want to teach me?”

I know that Owen loves snakes because they’re dangerous — they’re a little weird and a lot deadly, and those elements are big attention grabbers for young boys. But Birds of Paradise are renowned for the elaborate, beautiful performance rituals they put on to impress potential mates. Maybe learning about those dances would make my son impressed with his dad’s travels.

I told Owen that, in addition to attending some work meetings in the capital city of Port Moresby, I was headed to Papua New Guinea to visit a wonderful nature reserve. I pulled the globe down and showed him that it was a long way from Beijing, where we live. In fact, Papua New Guinea lies on the other side of the equator, in a completely different hemisphere. Isn’t that interesting?

Owen acted impressed but I could tell he was just humoring me. “Okay, okay, I got it, Dad. So are there snakes in the nature reserve you’ll be visiting?”

Still with the snakes. “Yes,” I said. “But that’s not what I’ll be looking for while I’m there; I want to see a Bird of Paradise.”

I pulled out my Birds of New Guinea book and showed him photos of the many different species of Birds of Paradise. I showed Owen that there are 43 different species of Bird of Paradise distributed from eastern Australia to New Guinea and west to the Moluccas. Owen listened attentively as I explained that many of those species live in Madang Province, an area where The Nature Conservancy has alongside local communities to draw up sustainable management plans.

I explained that Birds of Paradise are probably the best known birds in Papua New Guinea and have long been a big lure to researchers and wildlife photographers. The Papua New Guinea Flag even has a Bird of Paradise, I said; it’s the Raggiana Bird of Paradise. It’s got beautiful yellow, brown, and orange plumage and it’s the one species I’m really hoping to see while I’m there. “Here is a photograph — what do you think?”

Owen gave it an appraising look — not bad, his eyes seemed to say. Then he looked up at me. “Do snakes eat birds?” he asked. “Could they eat a Bird of Paradise?”

I sighed. “Yes, and possibly,” I answered. “But it’s not likely common.”

“Cool,” he said, and his face lit up. “Maybe you’ll get to see a snake eat a Bird of Paradise.”

I sighed. Maybe it’s time to become a herpetologist.

[Image: Wilson's Bird of Paradise. Image source: Serhanoksay/Wikimedia Commons]

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Comments: Teaching Children About the Birds and the Snakes: A Mammalogist Goes to Papua New Guinea

  •  Comment from Dr. Rohan H. Wickramasinghe

    More ‘tips on how to spark a child’s interest in nature’ is what the world needs today. The ‘World Environmental Education Congress (WEEC2013)’which ends in Marrakech, Morocco this evening would certainly have been interested in contributions like this. I wonder whether anyone from THE NATURE CONSERVANCY participated? Best wishes. Rohan Wickramasinghe

  •  Comment from TimBoucher

    Hi Matt

    Tell Owen that its true that many birds, especially those still in nests, are eaten by snakes! But, there are birds that eat snakes too – the snake eagles in Africa have been recorded killing and eating snakes up to 9 feet long! I have seen them flying off with a snake dangling in their claws. Also Secretary Birds, and bird of prey, use their wings to deceive a snake into striking, and then will kick a snake to stun it! It’s a tough world out there…

  •  Comment from Kate Hougen

    Want to learn more? Listen to interviews of Tim Laman and other TNC staff and hear the Birds of Paradise calls at: nature.org/look3listen

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