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Destination: Birds of Paradise at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

Posted November 21, 2013

I'll admit that when I first heard that the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences' latest exhibit focused on birds of paradise, I wondered whether it was really designed for kids.

I had a vague knowledge of the birds, which live in New Guinea and parts of Australia. For instance, I knew that they were pretty. But I wasn't so sure this was an exhibit really intended for kids. After the museum's big exhibits on the Titanic and dinosaurs, this one seemed a little esoteric.

In fact, after it opened, I emailed my contact over there and asked him if there was really anything kid friendly about it.

The reply came quickly: "Birds of Paradise is totally kid friendly – you need to come see."

So I did. I took my kids, ages 8 and 4, that afternoon. We went again a week later. And they are very excited to take grandparents who will be visiting for the holidays. This exhibit is fascinating and beautiful and features all manner of interactive pieces to keep kids interested. From the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences' Birds of Paradise exhibit

The exhibit follows the research of Cornell University scientist Edwin Scholes and National Geographic photographer Tim Laman. Starting in 2004, the two worked to complete the first comprehensive study of all birds of paradise. It took them more than 544 days over the course of eight years to build a collection of pictures and video of all 39 known species. As they worked, they also documented several new behaviors.

Why is all of this important? 

Two reasons, says Albert Ervin, the museum's special exhibits coordinator.

"It's important for folks to understand there's still a lot of world that we don't know about," he said. Albert Ervin, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences Destination: Birds of Paradise at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

The exhibit also explores, Ervin said, how the birds' colorful plumes and unusual courtship displays developed during millions of years of sexual selection. The birds have plenty of food and no natural predators. So, instead of developing feathers and habits that blend in with their surroundings, the males, in particular, look and act a little bit like Vegas dancers or cartoon characters. 

"If you don't have to stress over food, you can focus on other things like pretty feathers," Ervin said. And that's exactly what happened.

The exhibit starts with an introductory 13-minute video, which I highly recommend, about Scholes and Laman's research. It follows the two on one of their trips. You see how they build bird blinds high up in the trees to capture images of the birds. You watch as they trudge through tropical forests and swamps and fly above the trees in a bush plane. You're able to see what happens when they document one of the birds for the very first time. As you'd expect from a National Geographic production, it's includes some stunning video. From the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences' Birds of Paradise exhibit

From there, you can watch quick videos to learn more about sexual selection and see video and photos of each of the 39 species. There are plenty of buttons and touchscreens for kids to push and play with, starting with the replica of a riflebird that uses film strips for its wings. Right next to the spot with the video, there's a pretend bird blind with a digital camera set up. Look into the camera and you'll see video of one of the birds. Kids can pretend to be a researcher and take their own pictures, which are then displayed on the digital screen.

Other sections of the exhibit focus on Westerners' early research and interest in the birds, how the birds are part of the culture in New Guinea and details about the bird's dances and feathers. There's also a gallery featuring Laman's striking pictures. From the Birds of Paradise exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

But my kids' favorite sections were the Dance Dance Evolution contest where two museum goers try out the dances of one of the birds. Others, perched above the dancers like a female bird would be as she observes a mating dance, can vote for their favorite. Right next to that is a large touchscreen with a game where you can build your own birds and learn more about how they've developed over the years.

I'm pretty sure we've spent more than an hour playing both of those games. 

The exhibit is about half the price of one of the museum's usual special exhibits. Tickets are $6 for adults, $5 for students and seniors and $4 for kids ages 3 to 12. From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Thursdays (except Thanksgiving when the museum is closed) and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., on the first Friday of each month, Birds of Paradise adult tickets are buy one, get one free when purchased in person at the museum box office.

Birds of Paradise is here through March 23.

For more, watch my video interview with Ervin and go to the museum's website. The link also includes information about some special events about the exhibit. And you'll also find a classroom guide and in-exhibit guide. The in-exhibit guide, in particular, is great to take along with you if you plan on going with your kids.

Go Ask Mom features places to take kids every Friday. For more ideas, check our posts on parks and playgrounds and Triangle family destinations.

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