Green, grey or dull silver: conversations with bowerbirds

Essay proposal

This essay will discuss the relationship between display, performance and collecting in the worlds of humans and great bowerbirds at the Broome Bird Observatory (BBO). It is based on the Green, Grey or Dull Silver (2007-2008) project where I observed and interacted with bowerbirds in the Kimberley of Western Australia. Male bowerbirds spend considerable time and energy building bowers and collecting display objects. Each species is specific about what colour object they collect; the Great Bowerbird prefers green, grey or dull silver objects. When displaying to females the male will take up green glass fragments in its beak, present its brilliant pink nape feathers to the female bobbing its head in a vigorous display.

My interaction with the birds included providing ‘gifts’ in the form of differently shaped objects to see what kind of shape preferences they had. I’d like to draw out from my experiences how bowerbirds perform a hybrid and resilient landscape of adopting and adapting. The birds frequently take human-derived objects and are also excellent mimics of elements of the ‘natural’ and human soundscapes. In the particular case of the BBO, the setting is a conservation facility that both ‘collects’ birds (in photographs and by counting and banding) and discourages exploitation (accumulation) through its conservation ethic. This essay will unpick how actors in these two worlds respond to variation and change.

Houdini repairing his bower after vandalism by another male bird


Houdini repairing his bower after vandalism by another male bird

This essay builds on my general interests in the nature of the boundary between humans and the nonhuman, in spatial practices, and taking the practice of science in the field as a performative methodology and placing it together with (as it were) the mundane and bodily realities of fieldwork.

See also images from the sound installation The world has no shortage of things (the world of the Great Bowerbird)