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May 6, 2008


The bowerbirds (family Ptilonorhynchidae) are famed for their unique bower-building behaviour. In some species, the bower can be a complex construction of sticks and other vegetable matter that can grow to two metres in diameter and one-and-a-half metres high. Many species are also accomplished mimics, and are able to copy the calls of other bird species, other natural and mechanical sounds and even human speech.

The bowerbirds are confined to Australia and New Guinea and, due to the difficulty in accessing certain areas of their distribution, the study of their habits has been challenging. The 20 existing species are almost equally divided between the two regions, with eight species endemic to Australia, 10 to New Guinea and two species occurring in both.

Bowerbirds condenses published knowledge into a format that will suit natural history enthusiasts at any level. While the emphasis is on Australian members of the family, with detailed accounts on each of the 10 species, the New Guinea representatives are discussed in general chapters and are included in a supplemental section that covers key areas such as breeding, identification and distribution.

This book also includes more than 50 illustrations, including colour pictures of each Australian species, their bowers, displays and distributional maps.

May 6, 2008

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Bowerbirds - Peter Rowland


To My Parents

‘Slange var’



© Peter Rowland 2008

All rights reserved. Except under the conditions described in the Australian Copyright Act 1968 and subsequent amendments, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, duplicating or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. Contact CSIRO PUBLISHING for all permission requests.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Rowland, Peter, 1967–

Bowerbirds/author, Peter Rowland.

Collingwood, Vic.: CSIRO Publishing, 2008.

9780643094208 (pbk.)

Australian Natural History Series

Includes index.


Bowerbirds – Behavior – Australia.

Bowerbirds – Australia– Handbooks, manuals, etc.

Bowerbirds – Habitat – Conservation – Australia.

Bowerbirds – New Guinea – Handbooks, manuals, etc.


Published by and available from


150 Oxford Street (PO Box 1139)

Collingwood VIC 3066


Front cover

Male Regent Bowerbird. Photo by Graeme Chapman.

Back cover

Left: Large bower of the Vogelkop Bowerbird. Photo by Aniket Sardana.

Right: Male Satin Bowerbird. Photo by Michael Seyfort.

Set in 10.5/14 Adobe Palatino, Optima and Stone Sans

Cover and text design by James Kelly

Typeset by Desktop Concepts Pty Ltd, Melbourne

Printed in Australia by BPA Print Group



1 Introduction

2 Classification and morphology

3 Habitat, distribution and conservation

4 Bower evolution and sexual behaviour

5 Species accounts

Bowerbird key

Spotted Catbird

Green Catbird

Tooth-billed Bowerbird

Golden Bowerbird

Regent Bowerbird

Satin Bowerbird

Spotted Bowerbird

Western Bowerbird

Great Bowerbird

Fawn-breasted Bowerbird

6 New Guinea species supplement

White-eared Catbird

Macgregor’s Bowerbird

Streaked Bowerbird

Vogelkop Bowerbird

Golden-fronted Bowerbird

Archbold’s Bowerbird

Masked Bowerbird

Flame Bowerbird

Adelbert Bowerbird

Lauterbach’s Bowerbird




Special acknowledgement goes to Sally Bird and CSIRO, who made it possible for me to write this book. Thanks to Wayne Longmore for proofreading the book and offering suggestions, and Walter Boles for access to the Australian Museum bird collection, for his additional comments and assistance in tracking down published data and photographic material. Thanks also to the photographers who bring the book to life with their expertise in capturing these beautiful birds for the rest of the world to see. Also, to my wife, Kate, who provided the maps and diagrams.

This book aims to condense the published knowledge acquired by ornithologists who have studied the bowerbirds over the years, and deliver it in a more simplified format for the general natural history reader. Their dedication and patience, during countless hours of research and field study, is gratefully acknowledged. I thank all of these men and women. Their work has been treated with respect, with a special mention to Clifford and Dawn Frith, and Gerald Borgia. If not for their pioneering, life-long research of the bowerbird group, and the associated published material, a book such as this would be impossible. Due to the nature of this work, references have not been included within the text, but a full list of referenced works is contained at the rear of the book.

I dedicate this book to my parents, Pat and Keith. Thanks for the many opportunities you have given me in my life and for helping me to pursue my passion. I love you both very much.



‘Had Australia lacked the lyre-birds she still would have become famed among ornithologists the world over for her wonder birds: the bower-builders …’ (C. Barrett 1945).

This statement by Charles Barrett would suggest that this fascinating group of passerines (songbirds) are unique to Australia. In fact, New Guinea is home to two more species than Australia, with 10 of the 20 species found only in New Guinea and eight unique to Australia. The remaining two species are shared by both countries.

The bowerbirds (family Ptilonorhynchidae) are famed for their unique bower-building behaviour and, in some species, such as the Vogelkop Bowerbird, the bowers are such complex constructions of sticks and other vegetable matter that early zoologists could not believe that they were made by a comparatively small bird. Instead, they thought that native men and women must have constructed them for their children to play with – a sort of cubby house. These constructions can grow to two metres or so in diameter and about one-and-a-half metres high.

In all bower-building species, the male constructs, decorates and maintains the bower, which he uses to attract females for mating. The bower is wrongly referred to by most people as a nest. The nest, in most species, is a loose construction of twigs built by the female. The males in all bowerbird species, except the catbirds, mate with several females and take no part in the care of the eggs or raising of the young.

Figure 1.1 A wigwam-style maypole bower built by a male Vogelkop Bowerbird. Photo: Aniket Sardana

Four basic types of bowers have been described: the ‘court’ of the Tooth-billed Bowerbird, the ‘mat’ of the Archbold’s Bowerbird, the ‘avenue’ of the 10 species in the genera Ptilonorhynchus and Sericulus, and the ‘maypole’ of the five species in the genera Amblyornis (Figure 1.1). These maypole bower-builders are often referred to as gardener bowerbirds, because the platform areas of their bowers consist of a moss lawn, decorated with fresh leaves, flowers and berries. Currently no conclusive evidence exists to establish that male catbirds maintain a bower, although some birds have been observed laying sticks and leaves on the ground in captive situations, and some unsubstantiated historical reports talk of catbird bowers.

In most species, the bower is profusely decorated by the male. Certain types and colours of items are sought and are meticulously positioned in and around the bower in an effort to bedazzle the females. Studies have indicated that the owners of bowers with a higher number, and certain assortment of, display ornaments have more successful matings. Historically bowers were decorated with naturally occurring objects but, due to the increased spread of human habitation, a number of man-made objects are now included by some species (Figure 1.2). The male Satin Bowerbird, perhaps the most studied and widely known species, has a penchant for bright blue and violet coloured objects, which may or may not be linked to his glossy blue-black plumage and violet-blue iris. These objects include parrot feathers, flowers and berries, and pilfered objects such as blue pegs, bottle tops and straws.

Figure 1.2 Near human habitation bowerbirds use man-made objects to decorate their bowers. This Satin Bowerbird bower has over 100 blue straws. Photo: Philip Green

Other bowerbirds have a liking for different coloured objects. Males of species found in the more arid areas collect green, pale grey-brown or white objects such as berries, bones, stones and glass, while others collect snail shells, insects, seashells and snake skins. Other pilfered objects include jewellery, cutlery, coins, rifle cartridges and one bower was even found to contain a glass eye! The number of items can reach over 1000 in some bowers. Some species of bowerbird are also famed for painting their bowers. The paint consists of chewed up vegetable matter which the bird wipes onto the walls of the bower with its bill or by using a stick.

Figure 1.3 The parts of a bird most commonly referred to within this book.

In most species of bowerbirds the males have striking plumage, and the females are drab. In the catbirds, and Tooth-billed Bowerbird, however, both sexes are almost identical. The males of most species of the genus Ptilonorhynchus have a bright nuchal crest (located on the nape of the neck, see Figure 1.3), which is only erected and visible during display.

One exception is the Fawn-breasted Bowerbird, which does not have a nuchal crest, but interestingly the male still displays this part of his body during courtship. Some authors have hypothesised that the use of bower ornaments is gradually replacing the need for brightly plumaged males and evolution may lead to all male bowerbirds being uniformly coloured with highly decorated bowers.

The first species of bowerbird known to science was the Masked Bowerbird, which was described by Carolus Linnaeus (also known as Carl von Linné) in 1758. Originally the bird was depicted as a bird-of-paradise in early illustrations. The last species described was Archbold’s Bowerbird, which was named by Ernst (Walter) Mayr and Rudolf Meyer de Schauensee in 1939. Subspecies have been described as recently as 1997. On 14 July 1867 a bowerbird specimen was collected at Witton, near Brisbane, Queensland, by Henry Charles Rawnsley. The bird was described as a new species by Silvester Diggles and was named Rawnsley’s Bowerbird. The more widely accepted conclusion is that it was an adult hybrid cross between a Regent Bowerbird and a Satin Bowerbird. The specimen in question was predominantly glossy blue-back like the adult male Satin Bowerbird, with an extensive yellow wing patch, yellow tips on some tail feathers, similar to the Regent Bowerbird, and had a pale violet-blue iris. The two bowerbird genera involved are closely related and the grouping of these has been suggested (Chapter 2). Only a single specimen matching the description given for Rawnsley’s Bowerbird has been recorded since, when a bird was photographed in November 2003 in Lamington National Park near Binna Burra, Queensland, although many other wild hybrids between the Regent and Satin Bowerbirds have been recorded and photographed. Rawnsley’s Bowerbird is not accepted as a valid species.

Within species accounts measurements are given for critical body parts. These measurements cover all subspecies and populations within each species’s distributions, including New Guinea for the Spotted Catbird and Fawn-breasted Bowerbird, and thus may be quite broad in their range.




The Ptilonorhynchidae comprises 20 species, which are divided into five genera: Ailuroedus (3), Amblyornis (6), Ptilonorhynchus (6), Scenopoeetes (1), and Sericulus (4). Each of these genera are represented in Australia and four are found in New Guinea. The 20 species are also almost equally divided between the two regions with eight species endemic to Australia, 10 to New Guinea and two species, the Fawn-breasted Bowerbird and the Spotted Catbird, occurring in both regions.

The catbirds, so named because of their wailing cat-like calls, belong to the genus Ailuroedus. This group has had the most opposition to its grouping within the bowerbirds. The catbirds are monogamous (males mating with only one female in a single season), with both parents caring for the offspring, whereas all of the other 17 species are polygynous (with males mating with two or more females in a single season), with the offspring being cared for solely by the female. DNA studies indicate that the link between

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