Bowerbirds

What better or more logical place to begin than with the namesake of this site. For those who may not be familiar with them, Bowerbirds are a family of birds native to Australia and New Guinea. In many Bowerbird species, the male creates a structure or ‘bower’ which might (or might not) be considered elaborate by bird standards, in front of which he places objects he has collected. The female Bowerbird visits the completed bowers, and based on her assessment of their quality, selects a mate.

All this seems very reasonable and perhaps no more unusual than the mating rituals of many species – until you see the displays created by these birds. It’s hard not to believe that the underlying forces at work are a highly refined capacity for aesthetic composition (on the part of the males) and an incisive ability for critical evaluation of the finished work (on the part of the females). Neither the bower nor the array of items laid out in front of it has any practical function at all. No eggs are laid in the bower. It does not provide protection. It is not for camouflage. It is a gallery space for presentation of objects collected, catalogued and displayed. An architectural construct, a curatorial effort and a work of artistic composition. Some of the objects collected are retained for many years and periodically rearranged. It is said that although Bowerbirds do not pair for life, females sometimes return to the same males year after year if they approve of the quality of the displays presented. You can learn more about Bowerbirds in the three videos linked below:

  1. Animal Behaviour of the Australian Bowerbird – BBC (4:13)
    Narrated by Richard Attenborough. Not the best image quality, but still fascinating.
  2. The Vogelkop Bowerbird: Nature’s Great Seducer – BBC (5:43)
    Also with Richard Attenborough. With better quality video footage than the first one, the narration goes for the more sensational and (in my view) simplistic explanation of the bower as a ‘love nest’.
  3. The Clever One – Frontline (14:57)
    This segment features both the Bowerbird and artist Mary Jo McConnell. It is longer, but what a great and thoughtful story. It’s worth viewing and highly recommended.

Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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