Pimpin’: The artful design of this bowerbird nest is intended to attract a mate. (Image courtesy of National Geographic.)
Over the weekend, I was working my way through my tower of unread magazines and stumbled into the most remarkable story in the July 2010 issue of National Geographic about bowerbirds. The birds are endemic to Australia and New Guinea and are known for their spectacular nests. The male of the species build these — adding all manner of decorative elements, from leaves to rocks to flowers — in the hopes of attracting a mate. Once the lady arrives, they mate. After their business is done, she takes off and he prepares the nest for the next bird in question. Interestingly, the nests aren’t actually used to live in or nurture young — they are intended merely as showpieces for courtship, making them the avian world’s version of a pleasure palace. (Like the stuff you see on Unhappy Hipsters.)
What’s most interesting to me are the aesthetics of the nest. The male birds dedicate their lives to create pleasing arrangements that might attract the female of the species, laying out Andy Goldsworthy-esque constructions of acorns, flowers and even detritus. (The latter look very Whitney Biennial.) One species, the satin bowerbird, even creates his own type of paint out of plant matter, which he then uses to shade (and flavor) the inside of his nest.
As Virginia Morell writes in the story:
Given all these talents, some researchers have attributed an aesthetic sense and the glimmerings of culture to bowerbirds, traits rarely suggested as found in any species aside from our own. (Some primates, such as chimpanzees and orangutans, are now regarded as having cultural traditions, but not aesthetics.)
Which means if you were feeling all superior because we as a species make art, you might want to reconsider your position. Like many artists working today, these little birds are making incredible works for the basest of reasons: they simply want to get laid.
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(The link to the National Geographic article has been quite glitchy. If you can’t pull up the story, find a summary and a short photo essay at NPR. But if you have the time, try to locate this issue at a library — because the photography and the story are both amazing.)