New Guinea birds

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Greater egret taking flight from long grass on Bensbach River, Western Province, Papua New Guinea. December 2004
© Brent Stirton/Getty Images / WWF-UK

From fearless predators to elegant dandies

A look at the parade of New Guinea’s birds reveals a diverse assortment of species, ranging from birds of prey, such as the harpy eagle, to birds of paradise, including the king bird of paradise.
About 760 bird species (including visitors and vagrants) are found in the airways and forests of New Guinea. Around half of these are endemic, and hence are found nowhere else in the world.1

Papua New Guinea (PNG), the eastern side of the island, ranks fourth in the world in terms of bird species with limited ranges, and sixth in the number of Endemic Bird Areas (12 in total) as mapped by Birdlife International. 2

How New Guinea’s birds stand out

Many of the island’s birds feed off the ground, a risky strategy considering the presence of land-dwelling animals on the prowl. These include cassowaries (Casuarius species), megapods (Megapodiidae), pigeons and several forest rails (Rallidae). Other species specialize on fruit and nectar from plants.

There are more than 40 species of bird of paradise, undoubtedly the landmark species of the island. Their range extends from the Moluccas (Indonesia) to Australia but most are found on New Guinea.3

Picky birds

The ecosystems of New Guinea have favoured a particular trait in the birds of the island: high specification to food types and habitat.

For example, the buff-faced pygmy parrot (Micropsitta species) usually needs to find termite mounds to make its nest while the rufous babbler (Turdoides subrufus) will only build its domed, 2 m long nests on rattans.4

Lifting the curtain on New Guinea’s birdlife

Why the incredible variety of birds in the forests of New Guinea? One factor is the presence of large tracts of pristine forest, which are crucial for the survival of species such as the harpy eagle.

The other factor has to do with the isolated mountains, which provide a safe haven for birds. Most endemic bird species of New Guinea live at higher elevations, as these ecosystems are best suited for their food needs and to isolate competitors.5

Birds in the firing line

Despite the forests of New Guinea’s relative isolation and the lack of major development projects there, loss of habitat is the most widespread and serious threat to birds.

Unsustainable commercial logging, conversion of primary rainforest to oil palm plantations in the lowlands, and subsistence and cash crop agriculture where population density is high (such as the highland valleys), are gnawing away at bird habitat.

In addition to habitat loss, hunting for bird meat and feathers is also believed to contribute to the decline of several bird species such as the southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius johnsonii), the northern cassowary (Casuarius unappendiculatus), Salvadori's teal (Salvadorina waigiuensis), the black honey buzzard (Henicopernis infuscatus) and the New Guinea harpy eagle (Harpyopsis novaeguineae). This is especially the case where human population pressure is high, such as in the highlands. 6

A closer look at…
Southern cassowary <i>(Casuarius casuarius)</i>. New Guinea and Australia  / ©: WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY
Southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius). New Guinea and Australia
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY
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1 WWF US. Forests of New Guinea - Papua New Guinea - A Mega-diversity Hot Spot. Accessed 11/12/2005.
2 WWF US. Forests of New Guinea - Papua New Guinea - A Mega-diversity Hot Spot. Accessed 11/12/2005.
3 Muller K. 2004. Biodiversity in New Guinea. Unpublished document.
4 Muller K. 2004. Biodiversity in New Guinea. Unpublished document.
5 Muller K. 2004. Biodiversity in New Guinea. Unpublished document.
6 WWF US. Forests of New Guinea - Papua New Guinea - A Mega-diversity Hot Spot. Accessed 11/12/2005.

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