Australian birds design intricate nests to withstand fires
Researchers say the male great bowerbird builds a colorful nest to attract females -- and the high fire-safety rating doesn't hurt his chances.
Thu, Feb 25, 2010 at 01:01 PM
The male bowerbird of Australia is clad in mostly grey with brown and white feathers. But the industrious avian attracts mates by building intricate nests including flashy bits of colorful snail shells, glass, berries, leaves and even bits of plastic. Now scientists have discovered that these pretty nests do more than court female birds — they also withstand the seasonal brushfires that decimate the Northern Territory of Australia.
New Scientist reports that the great bowerbird, otherwise known as Chlamydera nuchalis, builds a bower that resembles a tunnel. It is walled in by two arching twig barriers built from intercrossed sticks. The bowerbird is known for its meticulous grooming of the nest and the area around it. Now Japanese researchers think the birds' habit of clearing away all debris may create a sort of firebreak. And this firebreak might save their nests from the brush fires that ravage the Australian environment.
Osamu Mikami of Rikkyo University in Tokyo, Japan, led the study of 23 bowers in Australia's Northern Territory. They found that the natural fires of the 2006 season burned only three of the bowers that it reached. And they were all found in areas of ground that were not burned; however, they were circled by scorched earth.
Scientists theorize that the birds “learned” to build these bowers as a result of sexual selection. Females may be naturally attracted to the colors in the nests, but it seems they may also be attracted to the safety the bowers offer. Or maybe the fire-safe nests may just be a result of their over-zealous cleaning and housekeeping of their nests. Either way, the meticulous great bowerbird comes out on top — and alive.
For further reading: Fireproofing tips from the great bowerbird