Regent bowerbird, an intelligent builder

By Bec Crew | February 12, 2015

The regent bowerbird male is one of the more striking of the family of bower builders, and he’s intelligent too

Contributor

Bec Crew

Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.

THE REGENT BOWERBIRD (Sericulus chrysocephalus) is not only incredibly beautiful and intelligent, but the species has given rise to one of the rarest birds in Australia – a hybrid of the regent and satin species, which has only ever been photographed twice.

Endemic to Australia, the regent bowerbird is found throughout the rainforests and leafy coasts of eastern Australia, all the way up in central Queensland, and down into New South Wales.

They display striking sexual dimorphism – the males, as seen above, are covered in silky black plumage, with glossy golden feathers on the ends of their wings, and pouring down over their heads like a thick, molten crown. The females, of course, are a dull, speckledy olive colour.

Bower construction and tool use

During the breeding season, a male will spend approximately three percent of his day constructing and maintaining his bower, built from an array of sticks maneuvered into a short, roofless corridor shape. This is obviously a very small portion of his day, and much less significant than the time other bowerbird species spend on theirs, most likely because the regent bowerbird male likes to begin his courtship routine up in the canopy.

This has created something of a raiding culture among the rival males. Like other bowerbirds, the male regent will decorate his bower in coloured objects, particularly various types of fruits, snail shells, and pieces of blue plastic. When he spends one percent of his day away from his bower to court the females (because priorities), he risks another male sneaking in and stealing his plastic at best, or sneaking in, stealing his plastic and destroying his bower at worst.

Which would be super-sad, because during that brief bower-constructing time, the male will go so far as to create a greyish blue or green ‘saliva paint’ in his mouth, to be used as further decoration on the bower walls, and will sometimes use bundles of leaves to apply it. This is one of the few known instances of tool use in birds.

Rare bowerbird hybrid

Weirdly enough, at some point, regent bowerbirds started breeding with Australian satin bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus), and the result was the ultra-rare Rawnsley’s bowerbird.

This ‘intergeneric’ hybrid – other examples include the liger, the zonkey, and the savannah cat – was first spotted near Brisbane in 1867, and a second one wasn’t seen until late 2003.

A year later, the first-ever photograph of a Rawnsley’s bowerbird was captured in southeast Queensland, and then another was photographed just last year, in New South Wales.

“To be honest I didn’t know what I was taking a picture of, but it caught my eye,” Kalang resident, Carol Seidl, said of the event. Better familiarise yourself with this fascinating bird – it would be a lottery shot to see one.