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Columns Out of My Head

Bowerbirds design, build in the name of romance

May 26th, 2013 12:00 am by Jan Hearne

Bowerbirds design, build in the name of romance

Editor’s note: Jan Hearne is taking a break. This column was published March 13, 2011.

The other day I read a column by a decorator who loves to adorn her front door with flowers, mirrors and other shiny things. She changes them to suit the season and seemed quite pleased with her creativity.
I hate to tell her, but the bowerbird has 10 times her imagination.
It was a year or so ago that I became acquainted with the bowerbird through a late-night documentary on public television. As I understand it, and I’m not a birder, the drab species, the Vogelkop bowerbirds, are accomplished artists/architects. What the Vogelkop lacks in plumage, he makes up for in design skills.
These fellows live in New Guinea, where they try to woo females with the bowers they not only build but decorate. Some scientists are questioning whether bowerbirds recognize aesthetics, an ability formerly attributed only to homo sapiens. (We have so much to learn.)
You must Google bowerbirds to fully understand what I’m talking about. The male bowerbird constructs his “lair” from twigs. It can be shaped like a maypole, a wild head of hair or a dome. What happens next is what blew me away. After the construction phase is completed, Mr. Bowerbird begins to decorate.
Because females like blue, he uses blue objects. In undefiled areas, that means an artfully arranged pile of blue berries or beetles, killed not for food but for decorative purposes.

In areas defiled by man, the bowerbird has much to draw from: blue bottle caps, straws, balloon fragments, clothes pin and other refuse. Like human environmental artists, bowerbirds transform trash into art.
He does not confine his palette to blue, however. If he thinks a female might be more attracted to pink, voila, pink blossoms. In one photo, a bowerbird is shown placing bright red hibiscus among the twigs above a floor of spiraled shells.
David Attenborough made and narrated the film I saw. He visited a bower under construction; it was a marvel. The roof was thatched and sat atop two sturdy pillars made of branches.
The bowerbird’s “treasury,” as Attenborough described it, covered an area 5 to 6 yards across. In front of the opening was a carefully manicured “lawn” of moss. Behind it was an arrangement of black fern stems. In front were carefully arranged piles of orange leaves, acorn tops and shiny beetle wings.
It isn’t as if all bowerbirds construct the same bower and decorate it in the same way. Each has a vision that takes 9 to 10 months to complete. Attenborough rearranged a bowerbird’s treasury in its absence. Upon its return, the bird studied the situation, then carefully put everything back as it was before Attenborough interfered.
A beautiful bower is no guarantee of a mate. In a National Geographic article, a Vogelkop named “Donald” builds a lovely bower but is rejected by the first female to check it out.
I find this whole process incredibly touching, perhaps because I realize birds and humans have more in common than I knew: We like pretty things, and we want oh, so desperately to impress others.
Jan Hearne is Tempo editor for the Johnson City Press. Reach her at

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