Kangaroos with babies in a pouch, cute koalas eating eucalyptus leaves, and the world’s most venomous snakes… All of these things come to mind when you say Australia. But have you ever heard of bowerbirds? We’ll take a closer look at two of them in today’s edition of “Behind the Photos.”
If you’ve ever seen any of the BBC series about Australia, maybe you’ve been as captivated as I was by the incredibly complex courtship behavior of birds that belong to the family Ptilonorhynchidae, the Bowerbirds. This small, twenty-seven species group of birds lives only in Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Female Bowerbirds are very particular when it comes to choosing a partner. (Although, with the exception of Catbirds (Ailuroedus), they don’t form monogamous pairs.) What fascinated Charles Darwin himself about the Bowerbird many years ago? It was the ritualized, generations-old way in which males court their mates.
The male Bowerbirds – unlike their better-known cousins the Birds-of-Paradise – do not stand out with sophisticated colors or surprising shapes. They’re really on the plain side. So, how do males manage to persuade the picky females anyway? By their architectural and design skills.
Birds are remarkably intelligent creatures for their size. Over the course of time, they have evolved some interesting behavioral patterns. Male bowerbirds seduce females with their songs, and especially their sophisticated shelters. (Hence the name bowerbird, named after the bowers they build.)
The bowers that they build often consist of thousands of tiny twigs. Males devote a great deal of effort to building and refining them. Some Papuan species such as the genus Amblyornis create constructions so elaborate that they fooled the first explorers of the Papuan inland. They look more like the work of people than any animal.
The birds are obsessed with decoration. The greater the artistic impression they make on the female, the greater their chance of mating. Below-average architecture and unconvincing vocal performance can condemn a male to many years of celibacy.
To decorate their bowers, males use a variety of artifacts. Petals of just-blooming plants, berries, beetle scabs, snail shells, pebbles. The colors must not only be striking but also in line with the bird’s specific taste. Again, a lot like people!
Speaking of people, our garbage is part of what the bowerbird uses for its decoration. Human presence introduces all sorts of plastic rubbish – bottle caps, gum wrappers, drink straws, and so on.
As depressing as that may be, notice the strange color-matching of all the junk that Bowerbird has deposited in the following photo. And also notice the color of his iris. Remarkable, don’t you think?
The Satin Bowerbird I captured in my photo is one of the most common members of the family. I came across its bower barely a few dozen meters from the parking lot, near a trail in Lamington National Park.
This played into my hands in the execution of my plan. I needed an individual that was fairly accustomed to human presence, which in this case was to be expected. The aim was to take a photograph at a very wide angle. If I used a standard focal length, say 500mm, I would completely suppress the surrounding environment.
In order not to disturb the bird too much, I prepared everything I needed in advance. To avoid scaring the bird, I set up my composition and used the SnapBridge app to trigger my camera from a distance. Fortunately, the bowerbird flew in almost immediately. As soon as his head poked out, I activated the trigger. Click! And there it was!
My second photo captures the Great Bowerbird, the largest member of the family. Here I was dealing with exactly the opposite problem to the Satin Bowerbird. I wanted to suppress, if possible, the environment that this bird had chosen for its bower. The ten-meter strip of grass and shrubs that stretched between the road and the railroad tracks was not particularly aesthetically pleasing. So, I used a 70-200mm lens and zoomed into 170mm.
Amongst the rubbish, in the gloom of an overhanging branch, stood the Bowerbird. It was around noon, a time when it almost makes no sense to take the camera out of the backpack. Deep shadows under the tree and an overlit background. A difficult situation to deal with.
Luckily, I had a flash with me with a fairly large softbox. I took it to Australia for exactly these situations. The diffused flash helped balance the highlights and shadows and gave the photo a nice soft light. (Nicholas’s recent article about flash for wildlife photography is pretty relevant if you want to know the right technique!)
So, that was two Bowerbirds. Closely related, but still unique. As was my approach to photographing them. When the situation allows, it’s good to think about how to capture the shot so that the photo tells a story. And as I see it, photographs absolutely should tell stories.
Thanks for reminding me. I photographed a Bower bird several years ago in bush close to a camping ground at Kakadu Northern Territories Australia.
It had a similar nest to yours, and I simply quietly waited for its return.
I was quite close and it didn’t worry about me.
Now I will have to go Bower bird hunting on my hard drives .
Have a good hunt, Graham. If your photos are published somewhere, I’d be happy if you leave a link in the comments.
fascinating description of Avian species and behavior, as usual. Thanks for preparing these great presentations of birds I would never know that much about otherwise.
I don’t buy the idea that extremely complex behaviors in higher animals “evolved”–there are impassible barriers forbidding complexity arising from non-order, beginning with: the enormous factor of negative probability for such complex changes to occur (even over 5 billion yrs.–and to occur simultaneously in multiple individuals, which would be necessary for reproduction.
I am quite happy to say things are what they look like: beautifully complex structures and behaviors produced by ordered complexity, i.e. a mind. I know that being this honest is not popular now, but as someone who cares about nature and science, I prefer it to the “C.D. cult.”
Dear Art, thank you for your comment. I am very glad you liked my article and found it interesting.
I realize that the question of evolution is a sensitive subject. Some may find it irritating for religious reasons, some find the scale of time with which evolution works difficult to imagine, and some find the theory logically flawed. Of course, we can let it go and just be amazed at how nature has managed to cope with the palette of possibilities it has been given. Personally, I find an explanation for the diversity of the world based on the emergence of new mutations and changes in their frequency in a population quite acceptable. After all, the successful spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 mutations has given us a global view of how quickly evolution can work when the conditions are right. But this is a long story. If you’re interested in this topic, I recommend some of the books by Matt Ridley or Richard Dawkins. Have a great day.
Art, animals do adapt from learned behavior combined with instincts. Grey squirrels have adapted really well to urban environments even though their evolution proceeds urban environments by a long time. This video shows untrained squirrels adapting to the conditions rather quickly: www.youtube.com/watch…sUOUqhDOX4
Thank you Libor. His texts, besides being very informative, are inspiring
Thank you so much, Rogerio, I’m so glad you read it. More are on the way :-)
The book “Survival of the Beautiful” by the American philosopher David Rothenberg contains a chapter about Bowerbirds. The author discusses the role of the bower in sexual selection (i.e. why the bowers attract females, and why a female prefers a particular male and his bower over that of competing males). In collaboration with ornithologists he develops the hypothesis that these birds have a sense of the beautiful, and that sexual selection is based on the aesthetic taste of the females. According to the author, Bowerbirds are not the only species with this trait, and he suggests that Art and aesthetics are a contributing factor to evolution.
In my opinion, the book is an interesting read for a biologist with an interest in Art.
“…that Art and aesthetics are a contributing factor to evolution.”
The author should stay away from biology. A predator does not care how “good looking” it’s lunch is. Nor do they decide what to eat according to “aesthetics”. Please tell me that you did not buy the book.
1. The author’s point was about sexual selection, and not predator/prey relationships;
2. I have a PhD in Biology;
3. Yes, I bought the book – I always enjoy thinking outside one’s box …
Evolution also has more gentle methods of removing someone’s genes from the game than just letting them (along with their carrier) get eaten. All it has to do is not pass them on to the next generation. And that’s what sexual selection is all about, as Schnupferich writes.
Thanks for the tip, Schnupferich. Of course, the question is, what is art? Is there some interspecific standard by which we can say that a cultural expression of a certain species is art? Maybe the Bowerbirds just hit our taste. A neatly and ingeniously constructed bow is certainly more pleasing to our eye than a pile of droppings. Perhaps there is a link between an individual’s health and its artistic qualities (something that female Bowerbirds are eminently interested in). Although, as I run through some human artists in my head, I immediately reject this hypothesis. It’s definitely an interesting topic.
Libor – what you said about the bowerbird just hitting our taste – I think that’s an interesting point. Our view on animals is always the view of an outsider, as the only inside view that we have is human. As such, we can only speculate about the “aesthetic taste” of animals. As with the interpretation of all observed animal behavior, this incurs the risk to introduce our current philosophical and societal beliefs.
I came across this website while searching for photographs of Bowerbirds, and I have to say that a lot of the animal photographs presented here are top notch!
I’m so glad that this article brought you here, to Photography Life. Especially if I hit your taste with it. Have a nice day, Schnupferich.
Danid Attenborough had an episode with bower birds in the Nature documentary series on PBS.