With St. Valentine’s Day almost upon us, today’s Story from the Museum Floor, by Chiara from the Visitor Team takes a look at the bowerbird and some of the most elaborate courtship rituals in the animal kingdom.
For more about our Heritage Futures exhibition and ways to share ideas to help shape our future, have a look at the Hello Future blog.
“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
Geoffrey Chaucer, “Parliament of Foules“
“Each little bird this tide
Doth choose her beloved peer,
Which constantly abide
In wedlock all the year.”
William Shakespeare, “To His Valentine”
(In parts of Sussex Valentine’s Day was called ‘the Birds’ Wedding Day’)
Two hearts in one home
Some people hate it, some people love it, but whatever you think about it, for many people, St. Valentine’s Day is a chance to show to your lovebirds how special they are to you – and no one embraces the spirit of this day more than a bowerbird, a fascinating creature that takes courtship very seriously … and I mean very seriously!
When it comes to showing their interest and conquering a heart, the male bowerbirds are second to none and have some of the most unique courtship rituals in the animal kingdom. These unusual birds live in the forests of New Guinea and Australia and are named after the elaborate structures, or ‘bowers’, that they build and decorate with colourful objects.
The family has eight genera and 20 species, 17 of which build a bower to impress the females and convince a hen that they are the mate for them. They occupy a range of different habitats, including rainforests, eucalyptus or acacia forests and shrub lands.
Satin Bowerbird and its creation with blue plastic materials all around. (Source)
Some bowerbirds build avenues, some different corridors or front yards but almost all decorate their bower with an impressive amount of effort. The Satin Bowerbird specialises in blue decorations (probably as blue is quite a rare colour and therefore easily stands out). The Western Bowerbird instead loves white things to embellish his creation. If the birds cannot find enough plants, snails or berries they will use human-made rubbish like glass, plastic bottle tops and even straws! All these things are welcome material for their creations.
The Master’s Apprentice
If you think that this is an exceptional art process that could compete with human ‘installation art’, then perhaps you will not be surprised that these birds also like to swing a paintbrush. The bowerbird chews fruits and plants to slurry and paint their nest with their beak, or sometimes they take a feather to use as a tool.
‘Art’ seems to be quite a legitimate description of their work, with the most interesting aspect lying in the creative process itself. Unlike the behaviours of many other animal species, the building of the bower is not instinctive and passed genetically. Almost like a young apprenticeship in a Renaissance Bottega, captive birds that did not acquire the skills do not build the bowers completely as they lack the years of apprenticeship with older birds.
The youngsters watch mature males building the nests over several years and they are often allowed to stay very close by during their courtship too. For the older ones, this is a way for them to prove themselves. Consequently, the ‘young building artists’ have joint learning projects for practising. However, they do not work together – after checking what the others did they destroy it and try a new version.
Male and female Great Bowerbirds inspecting bower. (Source)
Who is the final judge of all this artistic effort? It is the female bowerbird who decides what is real artwork. Like at an art fair, the males build their bowers just about 100 meters away from each other, so the hen chooses almost effortless who is the winner and indeed the fame pays back as the biggest artist pairs with up to 30 females, while some less talented ones come away empty-handed.
Solely dedicated to art
After pairing the male ‘artists’ do not spend any time on breeding or upbringing, in fact all their engineering skills are not even used for building a nest, which is left to females! Jared Diamond, an evolution biologist, called the bowerbirds the “most human-kind of all birds,” with many comparisons to human behaviour, for example killing some insects only to use them as decoration. Like real a professional, the male is occupied with his practice for the whole day, with serious decision-making like whether to immediately take away a falling leaf in their bower, or whether to steal or even destroy the nest of a competitor.
This behaviour might appear to focus too much on superfluous things which are not at all necessary for survival, however both sexes also spend a lot of time imitating songs of other birds and other sounds, with the Tooth-billed Bowerbirds mastering 44 different bird songs as well as sounds of foxes and frogs! This is far from a useless ability as females can scare away cats in trees by mewing, and have chased away other animals by pretending to be a much larger one, and in this way this has allowed her and her species to breed undisturbed.
Bowerbirds are protected by their special remote habitats. The Satin Bowerbird from the east coast of Australia is the most well-known species. It lives close to towns and likes to steal jewellery and to feed from orchards or corn fields – this poses a threat to the birds due to crop protection products, insecticides as well as by human hand.
The Human Bower 2018
The Human Bower is a collective work inspired by this fascinating creature to explore what sort of future we hope for and what we need to keep to make that future happen. It is based on the structure created and decorated by the Satin Bowerbird. At one end of the Human Bower there are pebbles, collected from Torquay and embellished with the words that participants wrote in answer to that question and the Peppereth Moths at the other end of the bower show the response to the question by Manchester participants. It is quite striking that there is no mention of material ‘objects’ amongst the answer from both places.
Satin Bowerbird and hazel branches, covered in man-made and natural threads by a group of participants from Torquay and Manchester in the ‘Human Bower’ workshop. Displayed on the third floor, Manchester Museum.
The Human Bower project was led by Shelley Castle (from Encounter Arts) and Jennie Morgan (researcher) as part of the profusion theme of the Heritage Futures project and exhibition. The work will encourage conversations around what we hope the future would look like, what we could hold onto to make that happen, and what we need to let go of.
Happy Valentine, love birds!
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