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Bowerbirds: intentional architects, and accidental farmers
April 26, 2012 3:44 PM   Subscribe

Bowerbirds, a family of 20 species in eight genera, are a fascinating bunch of birds who range from New Guinea and Australia. Some are flashy, others drab, but all are named for the "bowers" (avenues, huts, or towers of sticks; source) that the males craft and decorate to attract a mate. There are regional styles (PDF) in the design of the bowers, and the male Greater Bowerbirds even employ optical illusions. Some, like the Vogelkop Bowerbird, add mimicry vocal to their repertoire of courting methods. Add accidental cultivation to the list of fascinating features of the bowerbirds.

Bowerbirds in Taunton National Park, Central Queensland were observed with a higher numbers of Solanum ellipticum, or potato bush, plants around their bowers than in other locations. The locations for bowers weren't chosen with more of these plants. Instead, bowerbirds selected the brightest green fruits to decorate their bowers, casting aside the fruit when they had dried out. With that chain of actions, bowerbirds are credited as the first animal beyond humans to (accidentally) cultivate plants for appearance only.

Other species that "farm," in a fashion, include some social insects: some ants and termites (Google books) display a mutualistic symbiosis with fungus, as do some beetles, and some ants herd aphids. But these relationships are established for food, not beauty.
posted by filthy light thief (44 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
If it's not in one of these links the BBC Planet Earth series had a great section on these guys. I think of them as the indy record collectors of the bird world.
posted by Artw at 3:47 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


A sentient species that evolved from Bowerbirds would think that interior decorating was the most masculine thing in the world.
posted by Grimgrin at 3:47 PM on April 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Humans are really, if you think about it, quite weird when it comes to decorative stuff in the animal world.
posted by Artw at 3:50 PM on April 26, 2012


Artw: If it's not in one of these links the BBC Planet Earth series had a great section on these guys. I think of them as the indy record collectors of the bird world.

Nope, and it looks like there are no Planet Earth clips for easy linking online. However, the Vogelkop Bowerbird link is a clip from BBC One's Life, with the following description:
A lesson in seduction from the Barry White of the bird world. The male Vogelkop bowerbird is a master of attracting a mate and getting her in the mood for love.
Narrated, of course, by David Attenborough. Here's another clip, much lower resolution. Another short Attenborough clip, and audio-only clip of David Attenborough's Life Stories: The Bower Bird, originally broadcast on Fri, 10 July 2009, on BBC Radio 4.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:54 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


It may have been Life. I have trouble keeping track of them, and they are of course all fantastic.

/damn sure it wasn't Frozen Planet.
posted by Artw at 3:56 PM on April 26, 2012


No, YOU ADD ACCIDENTAL CULTIVATION TO THE WHATEVER BIRDS!!! MOM!
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 4:13 PM on April 26, 2012


Can't remember where I saw it but I thoroughly enjoyed some nature program showing the persistence of a male Bower Bird whose nests kept getting trashed by other creatures and natural events in the forest. One disaster after another kept forcing him to start over. Ultimately he (spoiler!) triumphed when some other male Bower Bird was (I think) eaten by a snake.
posted by christopherious at 4:19 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is awesome. I love bowerbirds.
posted by pemberkins at 4:30 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love this! Of course, everything I read about bowerbirds I hear in my head in David Attenborough's voice. I knew, of course, (thanks to David Attenborough) about the bird's skills in bower decoration and I'm delighted to discover this tidbit about the inadvertent cultivation of more beautiful potato vine fruits. If I had found a willing prospect as good as these birds are at keeping a beautiful and tidy bower while at the same time cultivating a wonderful garden, I might have been tempted to give marriage yet one more try!
posted by Anitanola at 4:40 PM on April 26, 2012


A friend of mine suggested that a human version of Bowerbird behavior is displayed at Burning Man, where groups of men try to make their camps attractive enough that young women will come hang out in them to have a drink and get out of the sun.

We considered going from camp to camp to kick apart the inadequate ones in disgust, but we never got around to it.

We're too old anyway- past the nesting age.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:00 PM on April 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


Yay, bowerbirds! I always think about how bizarre it would be to come across a bower in the jungle--this little shrine to flowers and bottlecaps--if you didn't know what it was.

In a similar vein, I enjoyed the Birds of Paradise segment on Planet Earth where the males spend all their free time tidying up their performance area, so that everything is perfect for when a female comes along. It's a lot of work keeping the jungle clean--you've gotta get rid of all the dead leaves that keep falling, pull out the random roots and weeds, shine up the tree branches. I mean, nobody wants to mate in a dirty jungle! I keep reminding the SO about this, but he just doesn't get it. He'd make a terrible Bird of Paradise.
posted by gueneverey at 5:05 PM on April 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


This is really great and those structures are incredibly lovely. Totally adding "ability to collect colorful plants and berries to decorate our bedroom for increased chance at mating" to the "What I'm looking for" section of my online dating profile.
posted by sarahnade at 5:11 PM on April 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Nobody in the field of evolutionary aesthetics can afford to ignore the bowerbird.
posted by kozad at 5:12 PM on April 26, 2012


Bowerbirds are fantastic and so is this post.
posted by rtha at 5:15 PM on April 26, 2012


We have a Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus) in our front yard. The nest is covered in blue litter, a bit of old tarp, some bottle caps, some clothes pegs. Makes me think of an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture whenever I see it.

The female has the most iridescent green colours, quite stunning as she flashes down to nick a bit of the dog's food.

I should post the pictures I have.
posted by wilful at 5:15 PM on April 26, 2012 [10 favorites]


nest bower
posted by wilful at 5:18 PM on April 26, 2012


My mother has at least one male satin bower bird in residence in her garden. She knew her clothes pegs were going missing off the line but didn't put the two together until she stumbled across the bower and a metric ass-ton of pegs. Blue plastic pegs. Plus straws, milk-carton lids, feathers and so forth. Judging from the sheer quantity of BLUE that he's got, she's dealing with the Fabio of the bird world.
posted by ninazer0 at 5:24 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Damn. Now I'm a half hour late, due to these addictive links. Thanks for this post!
posted by small_ruminant at 5:32 PM on April 26, 2012


via youtube suggestions: A very red bower.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:33 PM on April 26, 2012


metric ass-ton

Surely that would be a metric arse-tonne?
posted by wilful at 5:35 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can't remember where I saw it but I thoroughly enjoyed some nature program showing the persistence of a male Bower Bird whose nests kept getting trashed by other creatures and natural events in the forest. One disaster after another kept forcing him to start over. Ultimately he (spoiler!) triumphed when some other male Bower Bird was (I think) eaten by a snake.
posted by christopherious at 7:19 PM on April 26 [+] [!]


This is basically all human drama since the dawn of time.
posted by The Whelk at 5:35 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I remember one of the Planet Earth bowerbirds decorated his bower really dumb-style, with bits of fungus or something else that was monochromatic and gross, and all the ladies were like "LOL no." He was kind of the Beavis of bowerbirds.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:43 PM on April 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


I like the ones that make bowers that look like band hairstyles from the 80s. It's like the Flock of Seagulls Bowerbirds. Now, if we could just find the Bowiebird, our world could be perfect.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:51 PM on April 26, 2012


Oh my gosh, if I had bowerbirds in my yard I would buy them so much bling!! My bowerbirds would have frickin' LED flashers, all the fake gems and sparklies they wanted, anything that I thought they would like... and then I would take pictures and maybe, MAYBE resist the urge to 'help' the bird decorate.. "Dude, don't you think the spinning blue Virgin Mary should go to the LEFT of the disco ball?" "Squawk!"

I'd be like that part in Gerald Durrell where he provides a decorator crab with bright shells and coral to decorate itself, or like these guys who give semiprecious stones to caddisfly larvae and sell the results.
posted by The otter lady at 6:07 PM on April 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


Surely that would be a metric arse-tonne?

It would be, were I not fighting both a hangover and a damn browser that insists on ignoring the dictionary plug-in. Well done. Have a peg.
posted by ninazer0 at 6:11 PM on April 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Gorgeous birds, quirky and intelligent and with lovely songs. I believe the satin bowerbird is the most common in our neck of the woods. Just remember that it's not always them snatching the blue pegs off your line - more often than not, it's crows!

Anyway, interesting little Behavioral Ecology paper on bowerbirds here. Apologies if it's already linked above.
posted by tumid dahlia at 6:14 PM on April 26, 2012


I was also trying to find a clip (not YouTube, I don't think) I once stumbled across of a lyrebird imitating a bowerbird, but no luck :(
posted by tumid dahlia at 6:22 PM on April 26, 2012


"Hey baby, wanna come back to my place and check out the forced perspective on me gesso?"
posted by Abiezer at 6:24 PM on April 26, 2012


I saw the bowerbird segment on Planet Earth, too. Apparently, as soon as a female bowerbird is wowed by a bower, she turns around right away and has sex with the bower creator.

Some young male human artists would probably like think it will work that way with their own work.
posted by ignignokt at 6:25 PM on April 26, 2012


Some young male human artists would probably like think it will work that way with their own work.

I think it does work this way with some artists, but you pretty either had to (a) look like Leo DiCaprio or (b) be brilliant and lure someone into your studio who can recognize brilliance.
posted by maxwelton at 6:46 PM on April 26, 2012


Metafilter: The Beavis of Bowerbirds
posted by Wizzle at 6:54 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is just to say
that all bird posts
are automatically favorited

because birds
posted by jquinby at 7:16 PM on April 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Serious question: Why would this be evolutionarily selected for? I get that bright colors or luxuriant feathers on the animal can be a sign of health, but this isn't ON the bird, nor does the female stay in the constructed bower. I don't know a lot about birds (or evolution, I guess) and I would really like to know. :) Because bowerbirds are AWESOME. Especially the ones with blue bowers.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:30 PM on April 26, 2012


Why would this be evolutionarily selected for?

Eyebrows McGee, here's the google scholar results.

Without reading all of that, basically only a fit and healthy and clever bowerbird could possibly devote enough effort to make a really cool bower.
posted by wilful at 7:36 PM on April 26, 2012


From a quick skim, this 1986 Scientific American article seems to do a good job explaining the evolutionary processes.
posted by wilful at 7:41 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The guy that made his bower from Diet Coke cans and what look like empty Gummi Bear bags rules!
posted by ignignokt at 7:50 PM on April 26, 2012


Having a big blue sparkly bower is how you say I Am So Wonderful And Skilled And Well Fed That I can Spend All My Time Making This.
posted by The Whelk at 8:27 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's actually pretty smart when you think about it. Other species select for things like long tails or bright plumage that they have to carry around, and which weigh them down. Bower birds select for a love shack that they leave in one place and just need to refurbish occasionally. It's a huge saving in effort.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:57 PM on April 26, 2012


I came across the bower of a satin bowerbird recently. That bird was a goddamned MACHINE of evolutionary fitness. There was part of a blue flip-flop (thong in Australian parlance), a tiny blue SKYY vodka bottle, lots of the blue packaging tape that goes around newspapers. But it made me wonder... what on earth did these birds do when there were no humans around to provide pretty pieces of plastic and glass? I ended up going to the beach and trying to assemble the best collection of natural blue objects I could find - it ended up being a rather respectable collection of purple-hued shells.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 11:50 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I mean, nobody wants to mate in a dirty jungle! I keep reminding the SO about this, but he just doesn't get it. He'd make a terrible Bird of Paradise.

Happily, my wife chose me based on my ability to impersonate a kookaburra, chainsaw, and camera shutter.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:11 AM on April 27, 2012


Please enjoy some Bowerbirds with your bowerbirds. I think they're appropriately whimsical for the situation.
posted by Fui Non Sum at 5:03 AM on April 27, 2012


I feel like there is a story in a species that outsources its creative mating displays to another species.
posted by The Whelk at 6:11 AM on April 27, 2012


The guy that made his bower from Diet Coke cans and what look like empty Gummi Bear bags rules!

This was my strategy for a while, with mixed results. It didn't attract the type of mate I was looking for, but I did meet a very nice pigeon whom I dated for two years.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:48 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am smitten.
posted by Corvid at 4:27 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


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