Bird of the month

March's bird of the month: Great Bowerbird

Wednesday, 28 February 2024

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5 things about Great Bowerbirds

Meet the Great Bowerbird, your March Bird of the Month. Here are 5 things you may or may not know about these weird and wonderful illusionists.

1. They’re impressive mimics

With their cryptic grey-brown and white scalloped plumage, Great Bowerbirds can disappear in plain sight. But if their large bower doesn’t betray their presence, their distinctive calls probably will.

Male Great Bowerbirds are especially vocal during breeding season, and their extensive repertoire includes a mechanical hissing, harsh churring, loud cackling and chattering sounds. They’re also accomplished mimics of other birds and environmental sounds – and are even known to mimic the calls of potential predators when approached at their nest or bowers.

To the left of the frame, a grey-brown Great Bowerbird is perched atop a rock, facing the camera against a blotched brown background and some greenery.
Great Bowerbirds are the largest bowerbird species. Photo by Andrew Silcocks

2. …and thieves!

Like other bowerbird species, male Great Bowerbirds go to great lengths to impress a potential mate.

He builds his own theatre to perform in – an intricate bower made out of twigs and a surrounding ‘courtyard’.

He decorates his bower with pale-coloured, green and sometimes red and shiny objects, including bones, pebbles, snail shells and green fruits and leaves. A single bower may contain thousands of objects!

Males will collect artificial objects too, and their bowers often reflect their surroundings. In Townsville, a bower in a cemetery was decorated with marble chips from nearby graves, while another at a university campus was decorated with pens, paper clips and other stationery.

Males build their bowers under shrubs and foliage and often close to human habitation – including in urban parks and gardens, schools and rural properties. They are inquisitive birds and often unafraid of humans, and are even known to enter homes in search of food and decorations to steal!

A male Great Bowerbird faces away from the camera and towards the left of the frame, holding a green glass pebble in his beak. His tail is cocked and his bright pink crest and white scalloped feathers are on show, as he hops away across the leaf litter.
A male Great Bowerbird carries a green glass pebble to decorate his bower. Photo by Hugh Sweatman

3. Males create their own optical illusions

You’ve heard of a bird’s eye view, but did you know some birds create their own optical illusions?

The male Great Bowerbird carefully arranges each object very carefully according to their size, so that the smallest items are closest to the entrance of the bower and the largest are further away. This creates an optical illusion – the objects all look like the same size, making him appear bigger than he really is.

In the centre of the frame, a grey-brown male Great Bowerbird stands in the archway of his his bower made of twigs, peering towards the top right of the frame.
A male Great Bowerbird inspects his bower. Photo by John Barkla

4. They know how to put on a show

If his magic act lands, the female Great Bowerbird will approach the bower and stay for the show. To win her over, he struts noisily about, flashing his brilliant bubble-gum pink crest and flicking his tongue while waving colourful objects at her in his beak.

5. And they won’t be upstaged!

Since male Great Bowerbirds spend most of their time building, refurbishing or decorating their bowers, they’re fiercely protective of their creations. And for good reason!
Like other bowerbird species, marauding males will attempt to destroy each other’s bowers and steal decorations for their own bowers – sabotaging their chances with other females to increase their own breeding success.