a web page by Don Roberson
BOWERBIRDS Ptilonorhynchidae
  • 26 species in Australasia
  • DR personal total: 14 species (53%), 6 photo'd

The Bowerbirds are among the most fascinating birds in the world. Some are spectacular, such as the male Regent Bowerbird (left) of eastern Australia whose colors are shocking in the deep wet forest. Australia is home to six species of "avenue-builders." These "avenues" are rows of sticks imbedded in the earth between a narrow passageway. Colorful objects are placed at either end to attract females to and then into the gallery. Many males "paint" the inside walls with plant juice to add color. Representatives are Satin Bowerbird (male in his bower. large photo below) and Great Bowerbird (male just below, left, and his bower, just below, right). Satin Bowerbird prefers humid climes and just loves the color blue (even a blue bottle-cap or toothbrush!) while Great Bowerbird lives in the dry rain-shadow west of the Atherton tablelands and prefers white and orange.


The male Satin Bowerbird spends most of his life looking after his bowers and the 'treasures' he has brought there. If something bad happens — for example, an Australian Brushturkey walks right across the threshold — he will berate the intruder until it leaves (right), then hop down to discard 'junk' such as a scrubturkey feather mistakenly left there (below left), and then go to work to strengthen the 'avenue' (below right).

Some bowerbirds are very plain in plumage. It is these drab males that build and decorate the most spectacular pieces of architecture in the avian world. Vogelkop Bowerbird, isolated in the Arfak Mountains on the Volgelkop Peninsula of western New Guinea, is the world's greatest bower-builder. Look at the size of this "maypole" structure (left or above; these are different bowers created by different males), compared to the size of the bird (he's the size of a medium-sized thrush). Male Vogelkop Bowerbirds work 9-10 months a year on his bower in an attempt to attract females to mate. This one (left) has decorated his bower with green moss, red berries, silver snail shells, and a bit of decorative film casing and some batteries accidentally dropped by a National Geographic film team! The male above laid out rare orange flowers from distance places in the forest on his green mossy 'lawn.' Given its remote range and exceptionally difficult access, I'm among very few lucky birders to have watched one of these working on his art.

Vogelkop Bowerbird is a member of the "gardener bowerbird" group, which includes the "maypole" building Amblyornis and the "mat" building Archboldia, restricted to high mountains of New Guinea. All are generally plain birds although some have exotic erectible head plumes. The photo (right, by Will Betz) shows a netted MacGregor's Bowerbird high the cloud forests of New Guinea, where it was banded and released. The sometimes concealed orange crown feathers as shown nicely here. Some great photos of a displaying MacGregor's Bowerbird are in Coates (1990).

In contrast, spectacular plumages are shown by color-soaked males in some of the "avenue-builders." Perhaps the brightest bowerbird is the bright orange Flame Bowerbird Sericulus aureus of mid-elevations in New Guinea; missing it was one of the bigger disappointments on an otherwise productive trip to Irian Jaya in 1994 [wonderful photos of the male and his bower are in Coates 1990].

Northeast Australia has another species with lovely plumage: Golden Bowerbird (left in a fine shot by Murray Lord). The male builds a "double maypole" and is an odd offshoot of the Papuan "gardeners." Males build these bowers to attract and mate with as many females as they can. They spent 9-10 months of the year constantly working on, improving, and rearranging their creations — or stealing jewels from nearby bowers.

It was once thought that bowerbirds were closely related to the Birds-of-Paradise since both families feature so many spectacular varieties of polygamous males which had evolved in rich food-filled forests in New Guinea and tropical Australia. Biochemical analysis (e.g., Sibley & Ahlquist 1990) showed they are more closely related to the lyrebirds and scrub-birds of Australia, rather than to Birds-of-Paradise which can be thought of as highly modified crows.

Among similarities to the lyrebirds are the vocal abilities of bowerbirds which often include loud calls and skilled mimicry.

It is apparent that bowerbirds exist in a wide variety of habitats in Australia and New Guinea. In the hot, dry "red center" of Australia lives Western Bowerbird (male, below). The species builds "avenue" bowers. This male has come to eat fruit at a picnic table. It shows its lilac-colored nuchal crest in this photo, although the crest is not erected here.

In contrast, the catbird are birds of the dark interior of humid forests, from lowland jungle to montane cloud forest. This is Arfak Catbird, a recently-split taxa confined to the mountains of the Vogelkop Peninsula (above, in a stunning photo by Tony Palliser). The ten catbirds in genus Ailuroedus do not build bowers and they are monogamous. There are only three "traditional" species: Green Catbird A. crassirostris of eastern Australia, and what were once called "Black-eared Catbird" in NE Australia and New Guinea and "White-eared Catbird" in montane New Guinea. A recent molecular study (Irestedt et al., 2015) split the lowland complex into 3 species and the mid-mountain group into 7 species. Arfak Catbird is among those seven new splits. My own experiences in Australia and New Guinea found that any catbird tended to be shy and hard to see, although their loud cat-like wailings confirmed their presence.

The final catbird is Tooth-billed Catbird Scenopoeetes dentirostris, still assigned to a monotypic genus. It is found in upland rainforest in NE Australia and, like all catbirds, is primarily a fruit eater. Males clear and decorate a terrestrial court, and are polygamous. It is gray above and streaked below, and may be an ancient 'bridge' species between the monogamous catbirds and the polygamous bowerbirds.


Photos: The male Regent Bowerbird Sericulus chrysocephalus was at O'Reilly's, Lamington Nat'l Park, Queensland, Australia, on 1 Sep 2016. The male Satin Bowerbird Ptilonorhynchus violaceus and his blue-speckled bower were photographed there that same day. The Great Bowerbird Chlamydera nuchalis was eating fruit in a garden in Mt. Molley town, Queensland, Australia, in Jan 1998, but the bower was on the Mareeba golfcourse, some miles away, and was not actively tenanted during the brief non-breeding season. The Vogelkop Bowerbird Amblyornis inornatus and his bower were photographed from a native-built blind high in the Arfak Mountains above Mokwam, Irian Jaya, New Guinea, on 24 July 1994 (the other bower was in the same general neighborhood). The hand-held male MacGregor's Bowerbird Amblyornis macgregoriae was taken by Will Betz in the 1990s in the Arfak Mts. Murray Lord photograph the male Golden Bowerbird Prionodura newtoniana at Paluma, Queensland, Australia, on 2 Oct 2015. The Western Bowerbird Chlamydera guttata was at Simpson Gap, N.T., Australia, on 16 Aug 2008. Tony Palliser photographed the Arfak Catbird Ailuroedus arfakianus in the Arfak Mts., Papua, Indonesia, in Oct 2016.

      Uncredited photos © Don Roberson. Credited photos © Murray Lord, Will Betz, and Tony Palliser, as credited, and used with permission; all rights reserved.

Family book:
Cooper, W. T., and J. M. Forshaw. 1977. The Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds. Collins, Sydney.

For its time, this was a great book. I have treasured it, and each of the spectacular full-page paintings of the birds and their habitat is etched in my memory. The text was about as good as one could get at the time, but it is now outdated, especially for the birds-of-paradise. And of course, as noted previously, bowerbirds prove not be that closely related to the Paradisaeidae. Yet for the bowerbirds the book holds up pretty well. Yes, details of the display of Flame-maned Bowerbird Sericulus bakeri of the Adelbert Mts. of northeast New Guinea is now known (and wasn't back then), but the majority of species the accounts still hold up reasonably well. The split of catbirds was not anticipated then. Of course, once the chapter in the Handbook of the Birds of the World appeared (e.g., Frith & Frith 2009) these older volumes became more out-dated. Still, it remains an impressive achievement.

Family book:
Frith, C.B., and D.W. Frith. 2004. The Bowerbirds. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.
Frith, C.B., and D.W. Frith. 2008. Bowerbirds: Nature, Art & History Frith & Frith, Malanda, Australia.

The 2004 tome is a classic volume within the excellent Oxford "bird families" series. These have been an excellent set, but expensive; I have not personally obtained this one. I know others who own it and consider it well up the usual high standards of this species. The 2008 book is self-published by the authors, who are considered the global experts on bowerbirds. Amazon calls this book "A comprehensive account of the natural history, architecture, art, history of, discovery and human appreciation of the most incredible of all birds. Written and illustrated, with over 300 images, by two dedicated world authorities who have studies and photographed the amazing bowerbirds for over 30 years."

Literature cited:

Coates, B.J. 1990. The Birds of Papua New Guinea. Part II. Dove Publ., Ltd., Alderley, Australia.

Frith, C.B., and D.W. Frith. 2009. Family Ptilonorhynchidae (Bowerbirds), pp. 350–403 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D.A. Christie, eds). Vol. 14. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Frith, H.J., consulting ed. 1979. The Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds. 2d revised ed. Reader's Digest Services, Ltd., Sydney.

Irestedt, M., H. Batalha-Filho, C.S. Roselaar, L. Christidis, and P.G.P. Ericson. 2015. Contrasting phylogeographic signatures in two Australo-Papuan bowerbird species complexes (Aves: Ailuroedus), Zool. Scripta 45: 365-379

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: a Study of Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.




  page created 12-18 Oct 1999, revised 2 Sep 2004, updated and new photos added 20 Nov 2016  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved