Metaphors of nature documentaries: attenborough on bower birds

I’ve been lucky enough to have bower birds nesting in my garden a couple of times over the years in different locations, and have many hopping around the garden again now.

Satin bowerbird female
a collector of blue things

I collect things from the garden to display in the kitchen and marvel at how many species of fruit are suited to a bowerbird like me who fanciesblue, including the spectacular  Davidson’s Plums and Blue Quandong  .


Blue quandong

My arrangements are dull compared with the displays of the hard working bowerbirds.

  See attenborough on bowerbirds. This video shows some of the variety of displays of bowerbirds – not all focus on blue, as some may select and arrange objects according to different colour schemes.

Bower birds deserve their legendary status.

They are up there in my top 10 (the logic of Internet search requires us to think in lists) , pretty much at the top along with Lyre birds, which some DNA-DNA hybridization studies identify as closely related to them. Satin Bowerbirds are of course excellent mimics as well as being artful builders and collectors. Bowerbirds are superb persuaders (born advertisers), using whatever resources they have at hand creatively to attract and charm a mate, architectural constructions, an array of other visual and aesthetic elements, a variety of sounds and of course movement in the form of dance.

I find it impossible to talk about Bowerbirds without lapsing into metaphor, morality and anthropomorphism. David Attenborough’s commentary is rich  – his metaphors spark interest in from the audience. Bowerbirds may be the most creative of persuaders, but the nature documentary commentator (usually male with silver plumage) builds on their artistry, showing the world closeups of otherwise unseen and little known animal practices, and translating those behaviours into human terms . To labor the metaphors here, the nature documentary narrator has a symbiotic relationship with the bird he draws his material from, capitalizing on the wonders of nature while fostering wonder in nature and hopefully some conservation values.

We tend to think of animal behaviour as testimony or proof that certain human behaviours are the result of ‘natural’ impulses.

These behaviours are ripe with human significance. Note the following observations are far from scientific but show a strange and contradicatory mix of information and impressions I’ve gained from different sources. Clearly there are many types of bowerbirds, and different patterns of behaviour, but all  have heightened moral significance.

The male bower bird (usually the male) builds extraordinary and wonderful bowers and collects beautiful objects which are displayed with great art to attract a female       ( creativity and innovation is important to success and survival)

the male bower bird faces intense competition from other males to attract mates (heroic struggle, or sophomore angst)

the bowers are inspected by many females, several of whom may choose the same mate, leaving some males partnerless (bored princess – more sophomore angst?)

The female bowerbird builds and maintains the bower.  (feminist revision)

Female bowerbirds are generally ‘sole-parents’ who attend to the ongoing maintenance of the bower, feed themselves and raise the young, leaving the male bowerbird free to find beautiful objects  (heroic struggle)

The female bowerbird is drab and the male is spectacular   (unfair world)

Bowerbirds arrange the bower and objects in strategic ways – with many differentiating factors – colour, size and shape of object, arrangement of the ‘piles’ of objects.  (art and creativity triumphs in the midst of malthusian struggle over limited resources)

Female bower birds attend to ‘interior decorating’ (see Attenborough clip above) and is a proud and fussy housekeeper.

Some bowerbirds – as they arrange objects – create an optical illusion to successfully attract a mate.   This video demonstrating findings of recent study on bowerbird arrangement is fascinating.  (trickster – rat cunning is needed to survive) optical illusions in bowerbird art

The bowerbird is an artist, a scultor and a painter…..all of this is done, along with some dancing, to impress the female (courtship effort ‘paralleled by no other species on earth’ Attenborough).

The bowerbird is hardworking (workethic impresses tv audiences and female bird -or perhaps it’s the female bird that is hardworking)

Attenborough’s language: art gallery, jewels, artist.

bowerbird art

Attenborough again

A filmmaker friend of mine said she hated nature documentaries because they were always banging on about male courtship rituals, their fights with competitors, and other heroic efforts to survive, conquer and dominate the animal kingdom. I thought this was the most astonishing and skewed account of wildlife docos I’d ever heard, but since then have been awed by the prevalence of these themes.

Note here the moral overtones of the way we talk about birds. Here the playboy bowerbird.

And the the tiny fairy wren of southern Australia “is revealed as the most promiscuous bird in the world”.

Courtship rituals of birds.


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