The dentist I went to as a child was a birdwatcher. An ornithologist orthodontist. The dental surgery was in the ground floor of a converted house and there was a garden out the back, filled with bird feeders. The local bird population had figured this out as a good rest stop and the place was always teeming.
My mum is into birds too. She would sit by the window while I got my teeth counted and occasionally he would point things out to her. (“Look at that bullfinch.”) Or she would draw his eye. (“Is that a yellow hammer?”) Once, they saw a woodpecker.
I always tried not to laugh. Their enthusiasm seemed so misplaced to me at six, at nine, at thirteen.
I’m twenty-six now and my mum no longer accompanies me to the dentist.
When it comes to flora and fauna, the native species of Australia are pretty out there. The desert and rainforest conditions demand a high level of Darwinian badass and they all have their own resourceful ways of standing the heat.
The adaptations that each species has developed for food, flight and hydration are impressive, but it is the attraction of a mate that is most crucial in going beyond your own survival to the continuation of your species and in this the bowerbird is king.
As is usual in birdland, the women stay plain to camouflage themselves and their young while the males sport prettier plumage to help attract a female. But their mating ritual goes further than feathers (and some dancing) into architecture. There are twenty species of bowerbird across Australia and New Guinea with much variation between them, but they all share one fascinating ritual: building the bower. This is how they impress the ladies.
Bowers take two forms; a hut-like composition with a peaked roof or two walls of sticks that create an avenue – either way you’re left with a structure Frank Lloyd Wright would be proud of. Once the bower is built they then gather decorations from their surroundings including fruit, flowers, leaves and even bits of litter – the brighter the better. The items are usually arranged in colour group to form vibrant pools surrounding the bower.
The females then inspect the bowers and pick their favourite. Marks are awarded for colour, variation and arrangement. Some males arrange the objects in order from smallest to largest which creates the illusion of perspective so as to hold the attention of a would-be mate for longer. The bird that can build a good bower is likely to attract many mates, while poor builders languish sexless on the sidelines.
The bowers are so impressive that the males of certain species share the drab feathers of their female counterparts as they are able to impress by bower alone. David Attenborough noted that bower-building gives those not as aesthetically blessed an opportunity to fight for the continuation of their lineage and ultimately direct the course of their own fate.
I think it is this meritocratic nature of the bowerbirds’ social order that fascinates me most. The idea that hard work, individual innovation and creativity are their most highly prized assets is wonderful. These magnificent structures are a testament to the rewards of a conscientious work ethic and the ways in which an artistic flare can elevate us from the everyday.