Non-human techniques for attracting a few good mates

icon-plus icon-plus

Charade Aesthetics: A Non-Human Technique for Attracting a Few Good Mates

Isidoro Michan Guindi

Nature’s tendency to express superabundance is not straightforward. It is at times intertwined with distortion, or travesty. The elaborate courtship structures built by male bowerbirds epitomize this intertwining of excess and the “ability to deceive and construct illusions.” In his book Animal Architecture, zoologist Karl von Frisch claims that “significant traces” of “the beginning of thought processes and aesthetic feelings … can be found in the bowerbirds.” The courtship structures they build in Australia and New Guinea act as an instrument for seduction in which “scenes of sexuality and reproduction” unfold. Bowers may be simple clearings on the ground, a mat of lichens on the forest floor, a maypole bower of sticks woven around a central pole, often a sapling or a fern, surrounded by a circular raised court, sometimes including a large hut over the maypole that creates a viewing frame for the female spectator before the sexual act. Other bowers are a pile of sticks on adjacent saplings joined with a crossed branch functioning as a display perch, a frame separating the male and the female through which the seduction ritual occurs. The avenue bower consists of single or double walls of sticks that enclose a pathway of thatched twigs opening into two flat platforms decorated with colored objects that act as stages for the seduction performance.

Once the building of the basic structure is completed using prosaic things from the environment, the male bowerbird proceeds to decorate the contour of the bower with an abundance of elements: feathers, brightly colored lichens, beetle wings, berries and flowers, as well as objets trouvés such as stones, bones, shells, and bits of colored glass or plastic. One of the external platforms is a playground, or dance court covered with arrangements of gray and white objects (stones, bleached bones, and snail shells). Adornment here plays an important space-defining function and is an ongoing process. Adornments are arranged, rearranged, and innovated aesthetically as a complex form of communication and interaction with the purpose of attracting mates: wilted flowers are replaced with fresh ones, objects stolen by competing male bowerbirds are restored, objects moved by other animals or humans –either researchers or passersby– are returned where they belong, the stock of berries is replenished, and the inner chamber is repainted.

Rudofsky claims that, “Ages before artists learned to grind their pigments, bowerbirds used vegetable dyes to paint their bowers. A beak, dripping with fruit juice or fruit pulp, is as good as a paintbrush.” Male bowerbirds invest large amounts of time and energy in painting their bowers. Recent studies by Borgia et al. have demonstrated that the quantity of bower paint is important in attracting female bowerbirds since the paint is believed to be a chemosensory signal.

Coloration here is part of the ornamentation the males use in order to compete against rivals, prevail over them, and thus gain access to females through visual prominence and display. It thus becomes part of the mechanism of sexual selection that will ensure that their need for reproductive survival is met, assuring their “inexplicable tenacity to survive and multiply.” The important aspect here, however, is that having obtained access to a female, it is the female that exercises choice. Far from being part of the design decisions, females are the target towards which these design decisions are directed.

According to Welsch, “It is here that the proper sphere of animal aesthetics begins. Male competition morphs into courtship” and is directly addressed to the females, “in order to excite or charm” them. For this purpose, the male resorts to many time and space-bound perception signs and resources as a form of foreplay or seduction: a wide variety of songs, love-dances, antics, and ornaments as a means to exercise their power to draw a partner. This closes what Uexküll has called the “functional cycle,” i.e., the cycle linking perception to action.
Through all these objects and adornments, the male bowerbird relates to certain qualities of these objects and weaves them, as Uexküll would say, “into a solid web which carries its existence.” The mandate of all this patterning, apart from ensuring survival, seems to respond to the bowerbirds’ innate drive to express their own nature.

In another book also entitled Animal Architecture, Hansell intimates that male bowerbirds have an aesthetic sense and obtain pleasure from the experience of building and decorating their bowers in anticipation of the mating experience. Ornamental beauty emerges that is purposeful in terms of sexual selection. Both males and females seem to have a taste for the beautiful, a sexually motivated sense of beauty. In these structures, however, there is a misleading distortion. These courting structures illustrate how trickery occurs in nature and how male bowerbirds manipulate the courting structures in order to optically deceive the females. The male bowerbird arranges colorless objects as visual perception marks in increasing size from the entrance, along an avenue that provides the female with a viewing mechanism and a narrow field of vision, thus creating a gradient that provides a geometrical optical illusion known as forced or altered perspective. This makes the female spectator perceive the objects as more uniform and provides a false perception of size and distance, a charade of illusion.

This effect can be seen as well in the human realm in the explorations of forced perspective during the Renaissance, such as Borromini’s gallery in Palazzo Spada, and Palladio’s Olympic Theater, where there is also an intent to mislead the eye of the spectator.

In the case of the bowerbird’s courting structure, the playground court is used as a stage for the theater of seduction in which the male rapidly flashes the shiny and colorful objects he has concealed outside the female’s field of vision and drops or tosses them across the court as part of the courting choreography. This visual illusion creates “a more regular gesso pattern as seen by the female within the avenue, altering the perceived sizes of the court and displayed objects, and creating further illusions which attract the female’s attention.” By altering the placement of the objects and the scene geometry, this illusion has been seen as a sign of the male bowerbirds cognitive ability and fitness that enhances the efficacy and conspicuousness of the signals emitted by the male, aimed at attracting and holding the female’s attention. The female bowerbirds are deceived by this interaction between signal components and sensory processing that creates a charade of misleading or attention-capturing illusions. The females are deceived by the signs emitted by the male who manipulates the event to his convenience, creating a subjective reality determined by perception markers expressive of the bowerbirds’ intent. The female’s field of vision from the inner chamber is limited, defining what they see and how they see it. The male bowerbird thus exploits this limited configuration of the female’s perspective. The importance of the objects used to create this forced perspective and their qualities is such that when researchers have meddled with the pebbles by reversing their size-distance gradient, the male bowerbirds immediately intervene to fix it.

Female bowerbirds visit the different bowers before deciding which male bowerbird to mate with, a decision that is based on the bower’s signals, qualities and adornment, as well as the male bowerbird’s courtship behavior and performance (dance and song). Within the bower play-space, the bowerbird activates all the objects as elements for the courting dance, as well as the adornments of the bower. The role of the objects the male flashes to the female is of extreme importance, since the greater the number, diversity and colorfulness of the objects displayed, the higher the likelihood of mating success.

Another deceitful distortion male bowerbirds resort to is painting the avenue’s walls a reddish hue, which triggers chromatic adaptation and changes the female’s color perception, thus enhancing the color of the displayed objects and increasing the contrast with the visual background. According to Endler et al., apart from affecting the perception of color, chromatic adaptation can also affect the female’s “ability to discriminate among colors, and interact strongly with eye movements, which may affect mate assessment and attractiveness.”
The courting performance is a communication system through which the bowerbirds trade signs with each other: the male as performer and the female as spectator that will eventually, if convinced by the performance, become a participant in the mating ritual that will take place in a protected inner chamber, the nuptial thalamos. The experienced male bowerbird does not actually dwell in this structure, but rather perches near the bower, which once completed, he frequently visits to give it maintenance and to renovate it. When a female bowerbird approaches, the male immediately flies down to his courting platform and initiates his display under the female’s watchful eye: he prances and dances, emits synchronized calls, and displays his prized decorations in his beak. If the female approves, she enters the bower’s inner chamber as a sign of her willingness to mate. The mating actually takes place abruptly. When the expected result is not forthcoming, the male bowerbird shows surprise if not disappointment. Because bowerbirds are polygynous, i.e., one male mates with several females, whereas most females only mate with one male, this scene may be repeated multiple times during the mating season.

The male bowerbird’s non-random directionality, i.e., his manipulation of space to attain his purpose, as well as his intense labor and devotion in constructing and decorating the courting bower, allow him to display his prowess and possessions. A bower ends up being an expression of the male bowerbird’s maximum energy levels, of the complex processes he resorts to in order to achieve natural end-state equilibrium, demonstrating a continuous sense of anticipation of the female bowerbird’s response. The implication is that the construction of the bower and the whole behavioral and performative dynamics around this courting space go beyond the realm of survival, instinct and communication of needs, and that bowerbirds have an aesthetic sense.

Ornamental beauty emerges that is purposeful in terms of sexual selection. Welsch claims, “So at this level the aesthetic correlation is fully reached: there is male beauty on the one side that has developed for the purpose of being appreciated by the corresponding female sense of beauty on the other side.” Welsch claims that female appreciation of beauty is the thread that joins male courtship, female choice, and finally pairing. He asserts that it is the female’s delight in the beauty of the male’s adornments and performance that leads her to choose to mate with him. This would be suggestive that aesthetic sense and experience are not exclusive to human beings, but are also a non-human expression. Welsch states that human aesthetics might have evolved from animal aesthetics and through cultural evolution reached very different results, claiming that, “Darwin saw animal and human aesthetics as a continuum.” For Welsch, the aesthetic attitude consists of “the appreciation of something that, though perhaps useful, is appreciated not for its utility but for its aesthetic character,” an “appreciation of the beautiful for beauty’s sake.” In his work, Darwin provided an account of a genuine aesthetic sense in some animals. In The Descent of Man, he points to the resonance between the human and animal aesthetic sense. Most of Darwin’s references to decoration and birds refer to the birds’ secondary characteristics, their feathers and colors, except for a reference to the decoration of the bowerbirds’ bowers “for the purpose of courtship,” attributing it to “their taste for the beautiful.” Darwin seems to be pointing to an inner aesthetic sensibility and to the female bowerbirds’ power of discrimination and aesthetic taste. One of the limitations of Darwin’s research, however, is the anecdotal anthropomorphic method he resorts to. He argues that, “the playing passages of bowerbirds are tastefully ornamented with gaily-coloured objects; and this shows that they must receive some kind of pleasure from the sight of such things.” Darwin resorts to introspection to categorize the behavior and define what mental state a human engaging in that behavior would have, and proceeds to use analogical reasoning in order to attribute that mental state to the animal. This projection-based method would appear to be a dance of imagination where human vision and values are extended to the non-human realm. It is a reading of reality through the lens of rational thinking.

Going beyond Darwin’s perspective, Erika Milam, in her book Looking for a Few Good Males, however, notes that “Marshall’s research provided an evolutionary explanation for the bower birds’ behavior that avoided naïve anthropomorphism by framing their behavior as an adaptation to local environmental conditions,” attributing the bowerbirds’ complex courting behavior to environmental factors and innate behavior patterns. We can see again an intertwining of the surrounding life environment, or Umwelt as Uexküll conceptualizes it, and the inherited or generational blueprint the bowerbirds are expressing.

The building of the bower itself illustrates the male’s capacity to coordinate the appropriate anatomy in effective action, as well as his cognitive ability. The decoration reveals the male bowerbird’s awareness of and sensitivity towards the females’ likes and dislikes. Not only the building and decoration of the courting bower, but also the whole ritual performance taking place within its bounds are innate habits as well as the outcome of a learning process resulting from an aesthetic education or training aimed at the production of effects to ensure the achievement of a final goal. Immature male bowerbirds “may take 6 or 7 years to reach a level of performance that attracts females … and they observe mature males at work and the work that they have completed.” Hansell claims that female bowerbirds also “need a period of learning in order to assess effectively all the information provided in a male’s display.” He concludes that male bowerbirds are trained to produce beauty, whereas female bowerbirds are trained to appreciate it. Through a careful observation process, the female bowerbird learns to refine her perception and assess the male’s efficiency of energy use, his level of intelligence, his capacity to process data, his ability to present, represent and amplify himself favorably, as well as his use of chemical elements in the painting and tasting of the bower twigs.

Underlying this aesthetic is a manipulation and rearrangement of nature as a found object. It allures through strategies of picking up, turning over and putting with, as well as a display of energy events: somatically (the antics and dance displayed), chemically (the paint applied), visually (the bright colors and rare items with which the bower is decorated), acoustically (the songs and mimicry), and spatially (the manipulation of proportion and perspective). This compilation of actions and events can be seen as a purposeful fabrication, an illusion, a fiction with an ephemeral life span.


Andrews, Kristin. (2015). The Animal Mind: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Animal Cognition. New York: Routledge.

Borgia, Gerald. “Sexual Selection in Bowerbirds.” Scientific American. Vol. 254 (6). June, 1986. pp. 92-101

Colomina, Beatriz (ed). (1992). Sexuality and Space. Princeton Papers on Architecture. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press.

Darwin, Charles. (1874). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.

Endler, John A. “Bowerbirds, art and aesthetics: Are bowerbirds artists and do they have an aesthetic sense?” In Communicative and Integrative Biology. US National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Vol. 5 (3). May 1, 2012. pp. 281-283.

Endler, John A. et al. “Great Bowerbirds Create Theaters with Forced Perspective
When Seen by their Audience.” (Report). Current Biology 20, September 28, 2010.

Endler, John A., Gaburro, Julie & Kelley, Laura A. “Visual effects in great bowerbird sexual displays and their implications for signal design.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences). Vol. 281, Issue 1783, May 24, 2014.

Fleury, Bruce E. Mating Systems 2. Tulane University. Retrieved at:

Freud, Sigmund. (1910). Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Leonardo da Vinci and
Other Works.
Vol. IX. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: The Hogarth Press.

Freud, Sigmund. (1905). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. The Standard
Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume VII (1901-1905): A Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on Sexuality and Other Works. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Hansell, Michael, H. (2005). Animal Architecture and Building Behaviour. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Hicks, Larned and Borgia, Gerald. “Bower paint removal leads to reduced female visits, suggesting bower paint functions as a chemical signal.” Animal Behavior, No. 85 (2013).

Kelly, L. A., & Endler, J. A. “Illusions promote mating success in great bowerbirds.” Science. National Institutes of Health. January 20, 2012.

Mandoki, Katya. (2015). The Indispensable Excess of the Aesthetic: Evolution of
Sensibility in Nature.
Maryland: Lexington Books.

Milam, Erika Lorraine. (2010). Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in
Evolutionary Biology.
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rudofsky, Bernard. (1977). The Prodigious Builders: notes toward a natural history of architecture with special regard to those species that are traditionally neglected or downright ignored. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Stevens, Martin. (2016). Cheats and Deceits: How Animals and Plants Exploit and
New York: Oxford University Press.

van den Berk, Tjeu. (2012). Jung on Art: The Autonomy of the Creative Drive. New York: Routledge.

von Frisch, Karl. (1975). Animal Architecture. London: Hutchinson & Co Publishers.

von Uexküll, Jacob. (2010) A Foray into the Worlds of Humans and Animals with A
Theory of Meaning.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Welsch, Wolfgang. “Animal Aesthetics.” In Contemporary Aesthetics. Vol. 2, 2004. Castine, Maine.