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The Epitome of Bird Behavior; the Australian Bowerbirds: Part 1

by Graeme Guy | December 3, 2014

© Graeme GuyAs a nature photographer, I share the philosophy of Ofer Levy, who has written articles on this website, and spend time photographing subjects providing action or interesting behavior. The latter aspect is brilliantly exemplified by the courting activities of bowerbirds.

The bowerbirds are a monophyletic family of passerines consisting of 20 species in eight genera whose distribution is limited to Papua New Guinea and Australia. Australia has eight unique species, PNG has 10 species, plus two that are also found in Australia, making the total number of bowerbird species in the world as 20.

Bowerbirds have historically been divided into three groups: those who build no bowers, those who construct two parallel walls of sticks (avenue builders); and those whose bower is based on one or more vertical spires (maypole builders).

Bowers can be complex structures built by the males but are not used for nesting, only as a prelude to it. Bowers are generally associated with decorated display courts, and most species also decorate the structural components of their bowers. Without exception, the bowers are built on the ground and act as a stage for the male courtship display. With their bowers, vocalizations, plumage and ritualized displays, bowerbirds have one of the most complex sets of performances of any animal. Aspects of this intriguing behavior can be relatively easy to observe and photograph in areas of Queensland, Australia, where the photographer can be easily entertained.

Avenue builders

In the misty crests and hollows of the Lamington Range, several species of avenue-building bowerbirds congregate. In the first light of morning, a number of sub pigeon-sized birds forage on the grassy meadows. These are male and female Satin Bowerbirds (Ptylinorhynchus violaceus). (1, 2) The bower consists of twigs painted with mixtures of berry-juice saliva and hoop pine leaves, tobacco bush berries and charcoal. The surrounding area is decorated mainly with blue items, often human-derived, as well as cicada cases, feathers, onionskins, blue and yellow flowers and berries (3). Intermingling with the Satin Bowerbirds are the fruit-eating Regent Bowerbirds (Sericulus chrysocephalus). The male sports a spectacular gold and black plumage. (4). The female is black-crowned with a scalloped back, yellow eye and black bill (5). The male Regent Bowerbird builds a scanty avenue often consisting of only a few twigs decorated with green berries, cicada shells and other objects often stolen from Satin Bowerbird bowers. Decorating objects are mainly yellow to orange, which makes an interesting comparison with the blue objects favored by the Satin Bowerbirds and the white objects favored by the Great Bowerbirds.

Satin bowerbird, male © Graeme Guy

1. Satin Bowerbird (male)

Satin bowerbird, female © Graeme Guy

2. Satin Bowerbird (female)

Avenue bower of the satin bowerbird © Graeme Guy

3. Avenue bower of the Satin Bowerbird

Regent bowerbird, male © Graeme Guy

4. Regent Bowerbird (male)

Regent bowerbird, female © Graeme Guy

5. Regent Bowerbird (female)

The male Regent Bowerbird displays when a female approaches his bower. He prances, twists and prostrates himself making good use of the bright yellow coloration. He will also offer gifts from his ornamental collection. Mating takes place in the bower, in other pre-cleared avenues or in adjacent branches.

Farther north on the Atherton Tableland, the Great Bowerbird (Chlamydera nuchalis) romances multiple females in his characteristic avenue-type bower. The relatively large Great Bowerbird sports rather a drab livery: a grey, head and breast without streaking or spotting. There is a crest of pink-lilac feathers, much reduced in females. The feathers are hidden except during mating rituals (6). The bowers are fastidiously constructed, complete with a roof. The avenue as well as the ground in front of the bower consists of a diverse array of objects with white being the dominant color; bleached snail shells, broken masonry, aluminum foil, sundry jewelry chains, stones, fruit, assorted ribbons, human hair restraints and broken glass (7). Two bowers I photographed that were 80km apart both had red ballpoint pens as favorite display items. One was near a camping ground office and the other in the grounds of a country primary school, which facilitates the stealing of these objects (8). Favorite offerings to the female were aggregated near the entrance of the bowers. I have watched three different bowers created by the Great Bowerbird and have made the following observations: The custodians of the bowers are very alert and fastidious. Every 10-12 minutes they descend and do some housekeeping: shifting the shells, realigning the ribbons and prodding the sticks lining the avenue (9,10,11). They call from the bower entrance, from the ground around the bower and from the branches of an adjacent tree (12,13). When an interested female arrives, an array of male behavior begins. He struts with his wings down while carrying a gift in the bill and clicks like a traditional typewriter (14). He performs the same behavior with puffed up feathers. (15) He performs various tricks at the bower entrance such as throwing sticks and presenting an array of props and finally unleashing the lilac feathers at the back of the head and showing them to the female (16,17).

Great bowerbird, male © Graeme Guy

6. Great Bowerbird (male)

Avenue bower of the great bowerbird © Graeme Guy

7. Avenue bower of the Great Bowerbird

Great bowerbird with a red ballpoint pen © Graeme Guy

8. Great Bowerbird; arranging the romantic props, a red ballpoint pen

Great bowerbird with lilac ribbon © Graeme Guy

9. Great Bowerbird; arranging the romantic props, a lilac ribbon

Great bowerbird with bottle cap ring © Graeme Guy

10. Great Bowerbird; arranging the romantic props, a red bottle cap ring

Great bowerbird housekeeping © Graeme Guy

11. Great Bowerbird; housekeeping on the avenue

Great bowerbird calling © Graeme Guy

12. Great Bowerbird; calling from the bower entrance

Great bowerbird calling from tree © Graeme Guy

13. Great Bowerbird; calling from a nearby tree

Great bowerbird with wings down © Graeme Guy

14. Great Bowerbird; the wings-down strut

Great bowerbird with puffed-up strut © Graeme Guy

15. Great Bowerbird; the puffed-up strut

Great bowerbird with head feathers © Graeme Guy

16. Great Bowerbird; unleashing the lilac-colored head feathers

Great bowerbird interaction © Graeme Guy

17. Great Bowerbird; showing the female the feathers and special toys.

Great Bowerbirds are pigeon-sized and will defend their possessions from other competitors and passing mammals. I observed a hungry Rock Wallaby eating some of the display fruit at the entrance of a bower. The custodian gave the thief an old-fashioned scolding (18).

Great bowerbird scolding rock wallaby © Graeme Guy

18. Great Bowerbird; scolding a Rock Wallaby for fruit theft

Mating is often quite rushed and somewhat violent. Bowers remain in place for years and are used each year by the current curator. These bowers are more accessible to photographers than most as they are also in better light in that they are more in the open. In contrast to the carefully constructed bower, the nest (built by the female) is a sparse cup in an upright fork in a nearby tree. Two eggs are usually laid and the female is the solo parent.

In part 2, I feature two bowerbirds that build maypole-type bowers and live in the higher altitudes and bowerbirds that don’t build bowers.

About the Author

Graeme was born and raised in the Wellington/Hutt Valley area of New Zealand. He practiced as a pharmacist in Dunedin, Napier and Hamilton after obtaining a degree in pharmacy. He later obtained a BSc and MSc (Hons) from Waikato University in Hamilton before completing a PhD in Biochemistry in Adelaide, Australia in 1982. After five years in Birmingham, U.K. he moved to Singapore where he became a Professor and Principal Investigator at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in 1988. He is the author of over 100 scientific papers. Nature photography has always been an interest of Graeme's but became a serious pursuit for him in the last 15 years. He has won more than 1,200 awards in international exhibitions and has had a number of published articles and images, including 30 covers. In 2011, Graeme retired to live on Penang Island in Malaysia where the tropical environment provides him with plenty of photographic subjects. To learn more about Graeme and see more of his work, visit his website grguy.smugmug.com and blog malaysianwildlifephotography.blogspot.com.

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