The Art of the Bowerbird

The peculiar and artistic structures of the male bowerbird suggest a link between beauty and biology.

| Summer 2014

  • A male satin bowerbird builds his tower with blue things collected.
    Photo courtesy Creative Commons
  • Bowers are built to attract females, but they are far from the simplest solution to such a problem.
    Photo by John Harrison, Creative Commons
  • A great bowerbird and his bower.
    Photo by Jim Bendon

Bushwhacking my way through the Australian rainforest, I stumbled on what appeared to be the remains of a picnic—a pile of blue plastic spoons. “Who would leave their trash in the middle of this pristine forest?” I asked my guide, the noted ornithologist Syd Curtis.

“Rubbish?” he laughed. “What are you talking about? That’s a profound thing you’re looking at right there. It’s the oldest artwork in the world.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look right behind the spoons. You can see what’s left of a structure made of dried grasses.”

I squinted. He was right. There were two walls built there, with a bit of walkway in between, like a country road guarded by two short parallel hedges. “Who built this?” I wondered.

“A male satin bowerbird,” Syd smiled. “This creation is called his bower. It’s not a nest, but an artwork he builds in the hope he can attract a female to visit it, observe his performance in and around the bower, and then—if he’s lucky—mating just might occur!”

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