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The dance of courtship is one of love’s most sophisticated, exacting and important rituals. Attracting and holding the gaze and stoking another’s imagination and desire are at the heart of this heady game. Whether premeditated or unconscious, seduction rests in the strategic release of cues and information: a smile, a glance, a fragrance, a flash of skin, a hint of one’s taste, predilections or material wealth. It is the grand reveal – the manner by which we offer ourselves, or at least a heightened image of ourselves, to another – and it cannot be underestimated. Without it, the crux of desire, love and companionship cannot be filled.
At a glance, courtship and seduction are the most human and complex of behaviours, imbued with a psychology that teeters between expression, aspiration and the subtle manipulation of one’s own image. But we are not alone in this multipart game of hint and trace.
Foraging, flitting and swooping about the forest floors of Papua New Guinea, far northern Australia and the more lush pockets of the southeast and west, the bowerbird (or Ptilonorhynchidae, for those with an eye for the avian) and its 20 species are in the midst of a strikingly similar dance.
Indeed, the behaviours that define the bowerbird’s distinctive courtship and seduction rituals have made them one of the most elusive and genuinely fascinating creatures in the animal kingdom. The most striking of these rituals, of course, is the one that gives the bird its name. The intricate ‘bower’ that male birds construct to attract and seduce potential mates is not only one of the most fastidiously engineered structures, but also one of the most sophisticated perceptual devices, in nature.
Comprising an intricately arranged and constructed entwinement of twigs, reeds, foliage and stones (not to mention brightly coloured berries and flowers, for aesthetic effect), the male bowerbird’s shelter is more akin to a love nest than a bachelor pad. Bedecking their bowers via the most elaborate means possible – often sourcing bright, colourful or reflective inorganic objects such as broken glass, coins, nails, bullet shells, plastic wrappers, clothing pegs and other refuse (often all of the one colour palette) – the male’s objective is to essentially make an impression on a female with his building and decorating prowess.
Males build two distinct styles of bower depending on species and region. The maypole bower is perhaps the most spectacular. Built around the base of a sapling, it is hut-like in structure and often features a complex network of supports and struts. Males will decorate the entrance of the maypole, offsetting their extraordinary architectural efforts with a choice selection of forest flotsam. The other main style of bower is that of the avenue, commonly made by the great bowerbird of far northern and northwest Australia. It is equally as impressive, with the birds constructing two vertical walls of twigs and dried grasses in an avenue-like formation, before littering the entrance and surrounding area with a plethora of bright, eye-catching objects.
Such decorations aren’t a mere typology, but instead a feast of consciously created visual effects and devices. Numerous studies have shown that a male with a duller plumage will compensate by sourcing brighter objects and spending more time decorating than his counterparts, while others will create a series of optical illusions – such as ordering objects from smallest to largest – to challenge the perceptive impulses of the female and hold her attention for longer period of time.
It’s a multifarious endeavour that transcends mere shock and awe. A bright bower is one thing, but seducing a female is another. Indeed, the fact the female bowerbirds will often visit and inspect numerous bowers before finally falling for a mate – or that younger females are often perturbed by more intense courtship attempts –suggests the sheer subtlety and variation of this divine animal’s iteration of the art of seduction.
Rogerseller’s Art of Seduction runs from May to September 2013 – read more here.