Coming across a bower in the woods is like finding a secret castle in an enchanted forest.
Here is information about what a bower is, and a story about the day we found a rare bower.
The male bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea have fascinating and unusual courtship displays.
The fundamental reason males build bowers is to attract a female. A polygamous species, the male’s goal is to fertilize as many females as possible. The female’s goal is to build the nest and raise the chicks.
By building a tremendous bower he is expressing his proud ability to produce quality offspring, while at the same time attracting multiple mates.
He builds the bower usually with sticks or tall grass, then decorates with objects he finds.
Some of the decorations are organic, like flowers or feathers; and some are inanimate treasures, often shiny, like drinking straws or candy wrappers.
Sometimes rival males will steal attractive items from another male’s bower. More details here.
The male painstakingly builds the bower, arranging and rearranging his special creation. The courtship unfolds: first the female visits the bower when the male is absent. If she likes it, she returns when the male is present, and watches his strutting and bowing display.
Next she visits multiple bowers, eventually makes her choice, copulation occurs, and off she goes to build her nest. The bower is not the nest, it is just a showy structure for attracting females.
Each bowerbird species builds differently. The satin bowerbird, for example, uses many blue objects. You can see from Athena’s photo there’s even a blue clothespin!
It has been observed that as satin bowerbirds mature, they get more skillful at choosing bluer objects.
Charles Darwin wrote about the bowerbirds, and scientists have been avidly studying this courtship ritual ever since.
We discovered the golden bowerbird’s bower was very different from the satin bowerbird’s.
They decorate with flowers (often white) and fruit. The smallest bowerbird (9 in. or 24 cm), yet they build one of the largest bowers. I kneeled beside the bower for size comparison.
The golden bowerbird is only found in a tiny area of Queensland in the Atherton Tablelands. More info here.
Right after that photo of me was taken, we encountered a bit of bird drama. We apparently, and unknowingly, came close to a cassowary’s nest.
In case you are unfamiliar with a cassowary, they are also a rare bird–an endangered species. But unlike the petite golden bowerbird, the cassowary is over six feet tall (182 cm), weighs 187 pounds (85 kg), and can kick a person to death.
We had no intention of disturbing the cassowary, but he was unconcerned with our good intentions. So we had to leave the special bower quickly and quietly, to find safety.
That was a hair-raising experience, because the cassowary didn’t just let us leave. The guide warned us (whispered nervously) not to turn our backs on a cassowary.
So we backed up–surrendering, going now, bye bye. As we backed up, he advanced. We backed up more, he advanced more.
When it was clear this wasn’t working, our guide–a large man–stood beside a wide tree and told the two of us to back up behind his human shield.
We did this, wondering if we would ever see him again.
About ten minutes later the guide emerged safely from the jungle. We three got quickly into the car, locked the doors, and sat there, stunned; eventually drove off.
Most of the time finding bowers isn’t so dangerous. In fact it is perfectly delightful.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted