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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

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987