Bowerbirds

Last updated: Tuesday 18 April, 2017

Bowerbirds are best known for the seduction techniques of the male, whose elaborate courtship ritual extends across most of the 18 species. Male Bowerbirds build an elaborately constructed bower – or avenue – a set on which the bird performs an intricate dance to attract females. Naturalist Charles Darwin marvelled at the architecture of the bowers, and their place in the sexual selection of the species, citing it in his writings on evolution.

A Spotted Bowerbird at Edgbaston Reserve, Qld. Photo Anthony Darlington.
A Spotted Bowerbird at Edgbaston Reserve, Qld. Photo Anthony Darlington.
Among the best known varieties of bowerbird are the Spotted Bowerbird, the Great Bowerbird, the Satin Bowerbird and the Green Catbird. The Green Catbird, which is found from south-east Queensland to southern NSW, is the only bowerbird that doesn't build a bower.

Where do bowerbirds live?

Bowerbirds are native to Australia and Papua New Guinea, with 10 species in PNG and eight in Australia. Two species are common to both countries. Bowerbirds are most commonly found in PNG and northern Australia but extend into central, western and south-eastern Australia. Habitats include rainforest, eucalyptus and acacia forest, and shrublands.

Bowerbird behaviour

A classic white bower from Yourka Reserve, Queensland. Photo Leanne Hales.
A classic white bower from Yourka Reserve, Queensland. Photo Leanne Hales.
With the exception of the Catbird, bowerbirds are polyandrous, meaning that several females mate with one male. Once mating has occurred, male bowerbirds play no role in raising young.

Bowers, which are located on the ground, are either avenues, in which mating takes place, or maypoles, where a series of sticks are woven around a central pole. Avenue bowers can be up to two metres long.

Researchers have long been fascinated by the bowerbird’s mating ritual, which they say is an important demonstration of sexual selection. Competition between males to mate is intense and centred on the bower. Males steal from each other’s bowers with the aim of displaying the best-looking structure to visiting females.

A young volunteer, Pelle, examines a bower at Goonderoo Reserve, Qld. Photo Kim Eastman.
A young volunteer, Pelle, examines a bower at Goonderoo Reserve, Qld. Photo Kim Eastman.
Some males mate several times during a breeding season while others fail to mate at all. Research has shown that the quality of the bower and the male’s dancing prowess are excellent predictors of courting success. In some species the brightness of the male’s plumage appears to be assessed by females as an indicator of a male’s health.

Avenue bowers consist of two parallel walls of sticks, which the bird paints with saliva and chewed vegetable matter. The bowers are decorated with colourful objects such as green moss, red berries, and silver snail shells. Latter-day bowerbirds often use brightly coloured rubbish such as bottle tops, coins, pieces of glass, teaspoons and screws.

The Yourka shed bowerbird caught in the act. Note the new drink bottle lid used on the left. An Agile Wallaby looks on.
The Yourka shed bowerbird caught in the act. Note the new drink bottle lid used on the left. An Agile Wallaby looks on.
Female birds visit several bowers in the process of selecting a mate. To make selection easier, several bowers will be located close together. During the females’ visits, they're subjected to highly theatrical displays. These include the male chirping, whistling and buzzing while performing 'rooster' or 'penguin' walks.

Some species of Bowerbirds are excellent mimics, imitating local animals, waterfalls and even humans during their courting display.

Mating occurs in the bower avenue and lasts only for a few seconds. Males and females then have no further contact, with the female solely responsible for rearing the young.

Threats

As bowers are on the ground, the birds are preyed upon by foxes and cats. Loss of habitat because of land clearing is also a significant threat.

When the Yourka shed key went missing the Reserve Manager's kids got the blame, then a contractor, then volunteers... finally it was found. Photo Leanne Hales.
When the Yourka shed key went missing the Reserve Manager's kids got the blame, then a contractor, then volunteers... finally it was found. Photo Leanne Hales.
In Victoria, the Spotted Bowerbird is listed as endangered because of feral predators and loss of habitat. In areas with vineyards and orchards, many Spotted Bowerbirds were shot by farmers as they were thought to have been eating the fruit.

Most species of bowerbirds in Australia are listed as of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

What’s Bush Heritage doing?

Great bowerbirds, which are found from Broome across the Top End to far-north Queensland, have been closely observed on our Yourka Reserve, 130km south of Cairns. Reserve manager Leanne Hales describes the construction of four bowers near the Yourka Field Station.

“The selection of adornments has been many and varied,” Leanne said. “The year our middle daughter turned three, the bird decided his best bet to impress a lady friend was with a plastic Dorothy the Dinosaur tea set that he stole from the sandpit. Tiny pink cutlery, little purple plates, a green sugar bowl and a miniature purple teapot took pride of place at the bower entrance.”

Bowerbirds occur across most of our reserves and partnership areas. The Spotted Catbird occurs at Fan Palm Reserve (Qld), the Green Catbird at Currumbin Valley (Qld), the Satin Bowerbird at Currumbin Valley (Qld), Brogo Reserve (NSW) and Burrin Burrin (NSW).

The Spotted Bowerbird has been recorded at Goonderoo Reserve (Qld), Naree (NSW), Carnarvon (Qld) and Edgbaston (Qld). The Western Bowerbird occurs on our Charles Darwin Reserve (WA), Eurardy Reserve (WA) Birriliburu IPA (WA) and the Great Bowerbird has been seen at Yourka Reserve (Qld) and on the Traditional lands of the Wunambal Gaambera (WA) and Olkola (Qld) people, who partner with us.

Here's a great video from the BBC about Bowerbirds finetuning their seduction techniques. 

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