We all know bowerbirds. We learned about them as children in school—fascinated by their apparent obsession with blue objects and endeared by their decorating proficiency. In case you’ve forgotten, bowerbirds are passerine (perching) birds, endemic to rainforests stretching from south-eastern Queensland to Victoria. Though individual species vary, they are known best for the bowers that male birds build to attract a mate. Bowers are often confused with nests, but they are strictly used for copulation. They generally resemble either an avenue (long and hollow) or a maypole (tent-like, supported by a central sapling), and must be beautified with blue plastics and chewed plant matter to entice a female.
However, there is another reason for which bowerbirds are known: the Lemme Smash video. Best to watch it before reading on.
If you’re familiar, you will have seen a male bowerbird, Ron, try and fail to attract possible mate Becky. He does what he can—forages blue bottlecaps and straws, fortifies his bower with sticks, flicks his tail attractively—but she is unimpressed. Becky judges Ron to be ‘unfit’, his bower-decorating skills and mating dances no match for the unseen ‘Ben’, who it seems that Becky will choose over Ron.
But how did Becky judge this? What makes a good bower? And what does it tell her about her possible mate?
If we look at Becky’s experience as a satin bowerbird, we see that there are multiple factors involved in her decision making. She must be fastidious in her observations, so that she can pass on the best genes to her children, ensuring they are fit to survive where others might not. Becky is looking for a mate with superior cognition.
In other words, problem-solving skills make bowerbirds sexier.
This is not to say that Ron isn’t smart. In fact, he’s probably a great choice of mate. Ron’s bower, which is symmetrical and covered with blue trash as well as yellow leaves, appears to tick a number of boxes. Interestingly though, it’s not the amount of decoration that impresses her but the quality of it; rarer items are more important to females because they reveal that the male has (smartly) been able to source hard-to-come-by pieces from specific locations. Blue feathers, yellow leaves and snail shells are high scorers, but common blue trash is just adequate.
Then there’s also Ron’s dance moves. Becky can spot intelligence by the number of dance moves a possible mate knows, as well as how well he performs them. The smarter the bird, the better his memory. Unfortunately for Ron, we only see him attempt to flick his tail and no more.
Eventually, Ron retaliates against Ben’s attempt to steal his girl by visiting his rival’s bower and destroying it.
This is actually a sign of Ron’s intelligence—he’s not only destroying a bower but indicating to Becky that he can memorise bower layouts and owners, improving his own chances at being with her by taking down his opposition.
We never see Becky return to Ron’s bower. Though he may have proven himself to be decently intelligent, he will either need to wait for the next sharp-eyed female to come along or attempt sneaky copulation—treating another male’s bower like a one-night motel stay.
Maybe at Ben’s new bower. Ron would probably enjoy that.
Sophie Tomassen is a third-year creative writing and screenwriting student at QUT. Her favourite unquantifiable things are natural biology, the type of love only found in animated films, and the feeling of closing hundreds of browser tabs. She writes about the small, beautiful magic we see in our everyday lives and how it can change the way we love. When she’s not writing—which is terribly often—she can be found harassing stray cats or wasting time on the endless uni commute.