Wild Architects: Seeing Things from a Bowerbird’s Perspective

Bronwen Scott
Tea with Mother Nature
4 min readAug 25, 2021

Not everything is what it seems to be

Decorated bower of a Great Bowerbird at Broome, Western Australia. © Bronwen Scott

I got down on my hands and knees to examine the bower. There were snail shells bleached white by exposure, quartz pebbles gathered from the floor of a winter-dry creek, and bones of a long-dead bird. The arrangement appeared haphazard, but I was looking at it with human eyes and from a human angle.

So I lay in the warm dirt and rested my chin on folded arms. The sun warmed my back. Ants found the gaps between shirt and pants and took exploratory bites of unprotected skin. Now my line of sight was closer to that of a mid-sized bird. When I stopped categorising by type — shells, rocks, bones — and instead thought of them as part of a whole, the bower began to make sense.

Then the bird returned, and I hoped he would not judge the effort it took to get back up on creaky knees.

He definitely judged.

The male Satin Bowerbird has shining blue feathers. The Regent’s plumage is gold and black. But the Great Bowerbird looks like a guest who misread his invitation to a fancy dress party. His head and breast are grey, the colour of a bushfire sky, and there are sooty smudges on his wings. His beak is charcoal. The only bright colour is on the back of his neck — a blaze of cerise that appears when he is showing off for the girls.

But the Great Bowerbird has a sense of style.

Like most others in family Ptilonorhynchidae, the male Great Bowerbird is a collector. First, he collects twigs and vine to construct a courtship display area. He weaves hundreds of them into an avenue or tunnel about 60 to 100 cm (24 to 39 in) long, and with walls 40 cm (16 in) tall. Then he searches for treasures to decorate the bower. He selects them with an architect’s precision.

They must be white or pale grey, although later on he picks up a few green or red pieces for his courtship display. He arranges them in fans spreading out from the construction. Other species might favour blue fruit or yellow flowers or, in the case of the Vogelkop Bowerbird of New Guinea, a rainbow of berries, blossoms, and leaves. But the Great Bowerbird has his plan. His designs are more Gaudi than gaudy.

Bronwen Scott
Tea with Mother Nature

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland. She/her. Website: bronwenscott.com