Sex and Death in the Suburbs

The one at rear may be a young rival?


For several decades Great Bowerbirds (Chlamydera nuchalis) have frequented our garden on a regular basis, but we waited in vain for any sign of bower-construction. Then, three years ago, one bird began work, siting his bower under the cover of an overhanging shrub bordering the front footpath. We watched eagerly as the bower began to take shape, marvelling at the skill and industry of the architect as he followed the plans of countless generations of his ancestors.  But then disaster struck – the nearly completed bower was trashed by a rival. Our hero returned undaunted and by the end of the day had made good progress with repairs, but hopes were dashed when the marauder returned again and again until young hopeful presumably shrugged his shoulders, thought “why bother?” and resumed his carefree bachelor lifestyle.

But early this year construction again began in earnest on a new site, proceeding with remarkable speed and few mishaps. Two sabotage attempts were quickly repaired and, by April, decorations were being added. We found it hard to resist offering a few objets d’art that might appeal – white shells, fragments of red ribbon, some green glass – although I admit the purchase and consumption of an entire box of Lindt chocolates, so that our hero could have the shiny red and silver wrappings, was a little over the top. In any case, he has proved mostly disdainful of such gifts and is very particular about how, when and where each object is displayed; clearly, what is just right one day becomes an affront to his senses the next, so his work is never-ending. I started calling him Mr Perfect.

Open for inspection – ladies only.

Much as I admire his diligence, I do have doubts about his taste and aesthetics. To put it bluntly, a scrunched-up Coca-Cola can, lumps of poly-styrene, a red toothbrush with bristles caked in grease, and numerous unidentified grey plastic objects that probably once did something important inside a domestic appliance, hardly enhance the garden’s look. I feel it’s only the fact that bushes obscure the bower and its accoutrements from public view that saves me from accusations of littering. But, to be fair, his collection only reflects our peculiarly human untidiness and throw-away culture.

Inside the bower is a much more orderly collection of grey stone chips from the road, about a dozen white pebbles and very little plastic, while at either end of the bower, and to one side of the ‘display courts’, the leaf-litter has been scraped away creating roughly circular areas of bare earth. I call these his ‘parade grounds’ though I am not sure what purpose they serve, as he ‘parades’ right around his bower. Reportedly, avenue bowers of both Satin and Great Bowerbirds are oriented approximately on a North-South axis. But Mr Perfect is an individual, his bower being very precisely constructed to face East-West. If it is true that orientation is designed to (literally) shine the best light on the bird’s display, I can only assume that a high wall just a couple of metres to the south and some tall, light-obscuring vegetation to the north might have been factors. Who knows? Only the bird and he’s not telling – unless, as his admirers flock round (and if you’ll forgive a bit more anthropomorphism), there’s a look in his eye that says “Well, it works, dunnit?”

A nice line in clothes-pegs.

Apart from offering his girls a nice line in pink clothes pegs (mostly mine), carefully placed at the side of the bower rather than at one of its entrances, an impressive recent addition to the scrap-heap …er… bower was a semi-rigid grey plastic strip 76cm long and 4cm wide (that’s 30” and 1.5” for pre-decimal generations). I crept in to take these measurements when the bower seemed unguarded, but within seconds he was inches from my face harshly demanding my retreat. I just wish I had seen him flying in with that trophy.

Throughout the day Mr. Perfect keeps up an almost ceaseless flow of calls, from the harsh “hissing” calls most of us recognise, to a great variety of whistles, chirrups, chatterings and clicks. Even without my hearing aids this cacophony forms a muted background to my day from the moment I get up; with my hearing aids, I worry about receiving noise complaints from the neighbours. He does go on… and on… and ON! Even away from the bower Mr P and his friends keep us amused, as they frequently crash the honeyeaters’ pool parties in the larger bird-baths. And last week I watched one doing vertical leaps, from a standing start, to reach the small red berries of a Murraya which were dangling 58cm (nearly two feet) off the ground.

But while we may smile at the peculiarly strutting gait he adopts when a female is around, it is clearly serious business. We can see that in the way he lowers his wings, cocks his tail upwards, stretches his head forwards and unfurls the astonishing pink rosette of his nuchal crest – not to mention his bouncing hops, stealthy little rushes to, from or around the bower, and the way he will coyly hover outside the avenue, when a female has ventured inside, peeping round the corner with one of his treasures clamped alluringly in his beak.

As Spring advances, it is clear that love, or at least sex (and lots of it) is in the air, with the action ramping up to frenetic levels. After spending all day chasing rivals, wooing females and desperately maintaining his bower and trove of treasures, I always hope he finds a quiet roost for the night. It will of course be the females that do the hard yards of raising the next generation of loud but endearing exhibitionists.

Anyone in there? Mr Perfect displays his nuchal crest.


In his July post on this blog John Luly describes a sparrowhawk’s determined attempts to seize a magpie which was in temporary care prior to release. Here in suburban Cranbrook a life-and-death drama played out at the end of my street when some wildly flapping wings on the footpath caught my eye as I approached the intersection. My first thought was that one of the feral pigeons, attracted by the seed a neighbour scatters on her footpath (sigh), had become entangled in some netting or wire. A closer look revealed the flapping wings did belong to one of the ferals, which was clasped firmly in the talons of a hawk. I managed a few photos from my car window before leaving the hawk to its meal and, after consulting various print and online sources, decided it was either a brown goshawk or a collared sparrowhawk. Despite the poor quality of my photos our long-time member, Jo Wieneke, was quick to confirm the latter (collared sparrowhawk) after detecting a tell-tale clue in the shape of the eye. The brown goshawk is very similar in appearance but has a distinctive ‘frowning’ expression – a feature I remember Queensland’s former chief scientist and avid birdwatcher, Hugh Possingham, pointing out on one of his recent visits to NQ. The sparrowhawk’s round eyes give a staring look rather than a frowning glare (follow this link for a comparison).There were far fewer pigeons in our street for a day or two, but it didn’t take long for most to return – at least one pair now nest-building under a (different) neighbour’s solar panels! Hopefully the sparrowhawk will drop by on a regular basis for a pigeon feast.

Text and photos by Liz D, 11/09/2023.

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