The great avian show-off of the eastern and south-eastern coast of Australia is the Satin Bowerbird, whose only rival in plumose splendour may well be Dame Edna Everage.
The adult male Satin Bowerbird has striking glossy blue-black plumage, a pale bluish white bill and a violet-blue iris. Young males and females are drably similar in colour to each other and are collectively referred to as “green” birds. They are olive-green above, off-white with dark scalloping below and have brown wings and tail.
Young males begin to acquire their adult plumage in their fifth year and are not fully “attired” until they are seven. Mature male Satin Bowerbirds are mostly solitary, but the “green” birds are often seen in quite large flocks.
Male Satin Bowerbirds have a large repertoire of distinctive songs. Their long-distance self-advertising includes scratchy hisses, called “skraa” calls and loud whistled shrieks, but they also sing quieter and more highly varied songs – a jumble of musical phrases and mechanical whirring sounds.
The male Satin Bowerbird is an accomplished architect that prides itself on a complex courting behaviour. Instead of using its showy plumes or a romantic melody to attract a mate, the bird builds an elaborate structure (the “bower”) on the forest floor from twigs, leaves, and moss. It then decorates the bower with colourful baubles, from feathers and pebbles to berries and shells. Bowerbirds have even been known to “paint” the walls of their structures with chewed berries or charcoal.
The bowers are not nests for raising their progeny. They are bachelor pads designed to attract and seduce one or more mates. When a female arrives to inspect the bower, the male struts and sings. He hopes to convince her to enter the bower, where mating takes place. The female then flies off to build a nest close by, leaving the male to try to convince another female to join in a romantic tryst.
The Satin Bowerbird is a totemic species for the indigenous Tharawal people, a community previously united by a common (now vanished) language and strong ties of kinship. Skilled hunter-fisher-gatherers, they survived in clans scattered along the coastal area of what is now the Sydney basin in New South Wales, Australia. The bird features in Dreamtime stories, including one that tells of the repercussions a man suffered when he broke laws against killing and eating the bird. Shades of the Ancient Mariner, a poem published just 30 years after Australia was “discovered” by Lieutenant James Cook.