Feathered artists

A bower in Central Europe stands for summer comfort in small gardens. It is the best hiding spot against rain, sun and curious neighbors. Also, it is kind of bourgeois and definitely is not seen as an artist piece of work. Whoever has observed the courtship behavior of the bowerbirds, the unusual subspecies of passerine birds, cannot deny the artistic achievement. In total, 20 bowerbird species exist in Australia and New Guinea, of which 17 species build a bower to impress the females and to convince the hen about pairing.

Some subspecies of the bowerbirds build avenues, some different corridors or front yards. Most of them decorate their bower with lots of effort. The Satin Bowerbird specialized in blue decoration articles. Probably as blue in nature is quite rare and easily stands out. The Western Bowerbird on the other hand loves white things to embellish his bower. If the birds cannot find enough plants, snails or berries they switch to rubbish of men: glass, plastic tops of bottles but also ammunition cases are welcomed material for their artwork. In some nests more than thousand gems have been found.

Great Bowerbirds even work with perspective: they use smaller stones for the entrance area and bigger ones for the part in the back. This makes the bird look bigger, so they pretend to be more powerful in their bower for the female.

Not only “installation art” is in the birds’ focus, they also like to swing a paintbrush. They chew fruits and plants to slurry and paint the nest with their beak or they take a feather as a tool.

Art as intelligent creation process
Why art seems to be a legitimate description also lies in the creative process. Unlike with many other animal species, the building of the bower is not genetically prescribed via instinct. With captive birds it was observed that they do not build the bowers completely. They lack the apprentice years with older birds. Bowerbirds have an above average brain in comparison to their body size, and they only mature after several years.

Mostly the youngsters watch sexually mature males building the nests over several years. Often enough they also stay very close by during their courtship. The older ones usually accept this as it is a way for them to prove themselves. For the young building artists they have joint learning projects for practicing. Anyhow, the young birds do not work in unison. Furthermore, they check what the others did, destroy it and try a new version. Only the female bowerbirds decide what is real artwork. The hen chooses the partner with the most beautiful bower. Often enough, the males build their bowers just about 100 meters away from each other, so the effort for the female in selecting the best one is not very involved. Indeed, the biggest artists pair with up to 30 females, while some less talented ones come away empty-handed.

There is a simple principle between the different subspecies: The more inconspicuous a male is colored, the more magnificent is the bower.

Although bowerbirds are closely akin to birds of paradise, they are unlike them very inconspicuous and shine only with their art, built on free places in the thicket.

Solely dedicated to art
The male artists do not spend any time on breeding or upbringing. They leave it to the females, who have to care about everything, including building a nest, after pairing. Jared Diamond, an evolution biologist, called the bowerbirds the “most human-kind of all birds”. For example, they kill some insects only to use them as decoration. Among all species this is just practiced by human beings. Their focus on art is very consequent as the male is occupied with it the whole day.

If a leaf falls in their bower they take it away immediately, and if another male has more beautiful gems they steal it or destroy the nest of the competitor.

Males impress with building superfluous things into their bower and they deal with things which are not at all necessary for surviving. Both sexes of bowerbirds spend a lot of time in imitating songs of other birds but also other sounds. Tooth-billed Bowerbirds master 44 different bird songs as well as sounds of flying foxes and frogs. There are examples of birds copying perfectly falling leaves, rushing water or roaring chainsaws.

Known are cases where females scared away cats in trees by meowing or chased away other enemies with pretending to be birds of prey in order to breed undisturbed. Bowerbirds are protected by their special habitats. Several species live in remote mountainous regions of New Guinea which are barely explored. They may live to a great extent undisturbed. The Satin Bowerbird from the east coast of Australia is the most well-known species. It lives close to towns and likes to take jewelry out of houses or to get nutrition from orchards or corn fields. There is a risk to be affected by crop protection products and insecticides, but also to be killed directly by human beings. People could better use their time to observe bowerbirds intensively as we may learn a lot from them – not only how to build a bower.

Links to related topics

Michaela Sulz

Michaela Sulz is a passionate birder and blogger for ZEISS Nature Blog.