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No. 22: Jul-Aug 1982

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Bowerbird art for art's sake

The bowerbirds of New Guinea and Australia build and decorate marvelously intricate and esthetic works of art. One must classify these impressive structures as works of art, even by human standards. For example, the bowers have geometrical organization and may be oriented to a specific compass direction, depending upon the species. Colorful berries, stones, and, when available, human artifacts are systematically arranged around the bower. Some bowerbirds even take a piece of bark in their bills and paint their bowers with colored berry juices.

Each species has a certain style, but the bowers vary from individual to individual and with the age of the bird. Manifestly, these birds use tools for artistic purposes. Or do they? Is it all instinct?

Some animal behaviorists believe the bower's purpose is to attract mates, but the males often chase females away, although mating does eventually occur within the bowers. A second explanation is that the bowers symbolize territorial rights. In this context, bowerbirds fre-quently raid and destroy neighboring bowers, stealing choice decorations -- all very human-like behavior.

(Diamond, Jared M.; "Evolution of Bowerbirds' Bowers: Animal Origins of the Esthetic Sense," Nature, 297:99, 1982.)

Comment. Is human art any more profound than that of the bowerbirds? Human artists doubtless feel they are doing something more than attracting mates or proclaiming territory. Unfortunately, we cannot ask the bowerbirds what they are thinking as they carefully select colors and develop designs.

Satin bower-bird

From Science Frontiers #22, JUL-AUG 1982. 1982-2000 William R. Corliss