Bower Bird Blues

It was one of the biggest breakups in history. More than 40 million years ago, the island continent of Australia snapped free of the vast landmass that included Antarctica and South America and began to drift toward the equator. Cut off from the rest of the world, plant and animal life on the super-island began to go its own way, evolving into forms found nowhere else on earth.

A Satin bower bird.

Today, one of the best places to see some of these unique plants and animals is the rainforest of eastern Australia. These misty woods are the dramatic setting for the NATURE program, Bower Bird Blues. At first glance, some of the creatures you’ll see may look familiar. The waddling, sharp-snouted echidna, for instance, looks much like a porcupine or a hedgehog. But it is no ordinary mammal: it is a monotreme, a kind of living fossil that lays lizard-like eggs and incubates them in a pouch. Similarly, the plump Brush turkey looks much like the Toms destined for our Thanksgiving tables. But this is a turkey with a twist: the male builds an enormous mound of rotting leaves, inside of which it incubates eggs. The eggs, however, don’t hold his young — his are being babysat by another male mound-builder! The mutual-aid arrangement helps females ensure that their eggs get careful care.

The star of this unusual menagerie, however, is the male bower bird, an accomplished avian architect that has long fascinated scientists with its remarkably complex courting behavior. Instead of using just showy plumes or a romantic melody to attract a mate, the pigeon-sized bower bird constructs an elaborate structure — a bower — on the forest floor from twigs, leaves, and moss. It then decorates the bower with colorful baubles, from feathers and pebbles to berries and shells.

The bowers aren’t nests for raising kids; they are bachelor pads designed to attract and seduce one or more mates. When a female arrives to inspect the bower, the male struts and sings. He hopes to convince her to enter the bower, where mating takes place. The female then flies off to build a nest close by, leaving the male to try to convince another female to join in a romantic tryst. Bower birds “exhibit pretty extreme display behaviors,” says Gerald Borgia, a University of Maryland, College Park, biologist who has been studying the birds for nearly two decades. As a result, he says, they are of special interest to scientists seeking to understand how such complex traits evolve and function. His research team, for instance, is using trip-wired surveillance video cameras and robotic birds to probe the hidden world of the bower bird.

A bower bird builds his “bachelor pad.”

A bower bird builds his “bachelor pad.” Overall, there are 17 kinds of bower birds in Australia and on the neighboring island of New Guinea. Some are known as catbirds, while others are called “gardeners” or “stagemakers.”

Each builds its own shape of bower and prefers a different decorating scheme. A few, for instance, surround their bowers with carefully planted lawns of moss. Others have been known to steal shiny coins, spoons, bits of aluminum foil — even a glass eye — in an effort to create the perfect romantic mood. Some, like the iridescent blue Satin bower bird, the star of Bower Bird Blues, even “paint” the walls of their structures with chewed berries or charcoal. For the male Satin, which builds a U-shaped bower from parallel walls of twigs, the favored color is blue. To decorate its “avenue,” as scientists call it, he collects blue feathers, berries, shells, and flowers. While some of these decorations are found in the forest, others are stolen from the bowers of other males; young males, in particular, are prone to this petty thievery. However obtained, the precious knickknacks are then scattered around the bower. The male then waits, passing time by constantly fine-tuning his structure and rearranging the decorations.

For many males, the effort will be mostly futile. A younger male, for instance, may be able to seduce only a single one of his dozens of visitors — or none at all. Indeed, many males get not even a single glance: in a recent study, 75 percent of female birds visited only one bower before mating. In contrast, older males often have potential mates constantly stopping by for a peek. These more experienced suitors may mate with dozens of different females in a single breeding season.

To order a copy of Bower Bird Blues, please visit the NATURE Shop.
Online content for Bower Bird Blues was originally posted April 1997.

  • sara

    i need to know how bowerbirds use filial imprinting and sexual imprinting?

  • Ana

    Are these types of birds an endangered especies?

  • Flu-Bird

    Heard about one where they would rearrange the items of one bower bird and when he returned he placed the items back in place and when they made is so he couldnt he tore down his bower and a picture showing several blue items used by one male SATIN BOWERBIRD like bottlecaps,toys and marbles

  • sue pearce

    spent 4days camping at geehi pitched tent almost on top of bower kept us entertained stole things from our camp including blue scouring sponge glasses case

  • Ron

    Saw the story about the Bower Bird on PBS when it aired and enjoyed it very much and would like to get a copy of it but have been unable to do so.

  • Birdzilla

    Notice the males lavander colored eyes

  • Alvin Francis Apor

    I really love this birds cause they are very smart birds!!! NICE!

  • Mary Pappenheimer

    After seeing the David Attenbourough Special years ago, we got a Grant from the Boston Museum School to visit and research the only animal artist – the Bowerbird – and we found 6 of the 17 species up and down the eastern coast of AU… what a great adventure. We highly recommend that everyone try this if you love birding or are just plain curious. Try the wines while you’re there also.

  • Bill Bower

    Maybe human males should do the same thing… build a nice house and then wait to see if any females would like to come for a visit, and stay awhile

  • Lyn Woolbank

    My husand and I share our property with a large number of Satin Bower birds. The males take all sorts on things from around our home. I woke one morning to feel something on my leg when I looked down there was male bird trying to take the blue flowers off my quilt – I don’t know who was more surprised. He flew off thru the opened door in our bedroom. Last week I left some coloured fabric scraps – he is took the blue, lavender and cream bits. I watch these birds all the time as they are not afraid of us. Their bowers are just wonderful. We live just outside the town of Maleny, Queensland, Australia.

  • Christy Martin

    Gee, Lyn…so romantic, to wake up with one of my my favorite birds ‘the Satin Bower bird’ at my feet, sounds like a dream home… Say, would you like to trade? We have a lovely 4 brm home east coast USA, near the seashore and we have these fascinating birds called Seagulls, well, they collect garbage from bins and also some will eat french fries right from your hand! ? Tee Hee I wonder…Does that Bower bird interact with you more now that he has gotten closer to you?

  • Ron Brunton

    we have a satin bowerbird at the bottom of our garden in N.S.W and we have been dropping small blue items mainly bottle tops on the lawn for him
    for months and he has become very fussy which items he now takes.

  • agnes olive

    I too would like to find and purchase the old PBS presentation with Attenborough on the bower bird. Any information how I could do this would be appreciated.

  • Ali

    found a poor male bower bird a few years ago dead.strangled itself on a blue milk bottle ring!

  • Annabelle

    I am an accessories designer and I am currently designing a range of headpieces and jewellery inspired by bowerbirds and their ‘castles’. I am wanting to do some research for some inspiration somewhere within a day trip of Brisbane. If anyone knows of any good spots to see bowerbirds and their nests could you please let me know! Thank you very much!

  • hoa azer

    I am art Photographer, I like very much to know if any group of people joint together in a trip to see this Bower bird. Look like this is hard working bird. and he like to decorate his home. Is any place out there in USA I can visit this bird?

  • Deborah Elberson

    I also am a designer currently working on a jewelry collection inspired by the bowerbird & birds nests in general. They are fascinating creatures.

  • Jennifer

    I need to know what are bower birds natural enemy

  • Romia Gifoun

    Bower birds are facinating, giving caring, their courting behaviors,are quite unique, they are no dads, they hunt for mates constantly, they are confirmed bachelor pads designed to attract and seduce one or more mates.

  • M.K.Bhaskar

    As a Bird \watcher, I am fascinated by Bower Birds.I recently read,that they can sing simultaneously the male and female parts of another species’ duet:some imitate the laugh of a kookaburra or the roar of a chain saw!! And they all dance.
    They even Kill solely for the purpose of decorating(like Beetles etc;). Humans are the only other species known to use animals in this way!!! ( Source: National Geographic, July 2010 issue )
    Would like to see them one day in their natural habitat.

  • Lorenza Hannick

    MashaAllah they are really fascinating. Allah created them so amazing.

  • Linda Rice

    My satin bowerbird has relocated to my neighbour’s yard after around 2 years blessing us with his presence. What amazes me is that he has built a double bower. Is this normal?

  • desley

    My sister has a bower bird in her garden. He has spent many weeks building his bower and adorning it with various finds. A few days ago we noticed that it had been partially destroyed. Mr Bower seemed to continue to rebuild. Today we observed the whole bower to be domolished. A very private area so is this a case of him destroying it due to the interference of other males?

  • Ray

    Hello, I’m a therapist who uses colour as a means for clients to express themselves. I’ve also worked with business and interior designers advising them on the psychological properties of colour.
    Last night I watched a bbc programme featuring bower birds. Its the first time I’ve heard about them.
    Blue is the colour of the voice- self expression. It’s the colour that relates to authority.
    We all knew colour in a different way in the early stages of mans development. It was mans voice, how he knew the world around him, how we interpreted our place in the world. All that’s still there with us in our unconcious mind, though it’s still obviously very much present in the life of the bowerbird
    I’d love to hear from anyone with ideas

  • JTaran

    Ray, this is quite fascinating to me-that blue is the color of voice. Would you be able to direct me to literature concerning this topic? I’m currently researching the similarities/differences in human and bowerbird behavior surrounding choices made based on color.
    Thank you!

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