Brain Birds Are Big Show-offs

What would it be like to devote your entire life to creating an attractive piece of art? Just ask the Bowerbird, a group of unique birds found in Australia and New Guinea. Why are they unique? Well, like you, they like to show off and impress others. Like you, they spend a lot of time collecting things. And like you, they decorate their homes and dance around when someone comes to visit. Okay, maybe you don’t exhibit all of those behaviors, but humans do like to accessorize themselves and decorate their homes and belongings. Just think about your bedroom, living room or front yard. Instead of ornamenting these types of living spaces, Bowerbirds decorate their bowers. A bower is a structure built by a male bird for attracting a mate. Bowers are not for nesting or shelter. Their sole use is to attract female bowerbirds. A bower is an extended phenotype, which is an external structure that can be altered through natural selection, in this case sexual selection.

The females select males based on many criteria, one of which is a dance. Yep, the males show off their best dance routine. Some of those dance moves could even upstage our pop icons. But it takes more than dancing to win a mate. These Bowerbirds have certain cognitive abilities like spatial awareness and problem solving that allow them to build complex bowers. Humans share these cognitive abilities with bowerbirds, which explains why these actions sound so familiar. As scientists learn more about animal behavior, they see we share many cognitive abilities with animals.

At OMSI, Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think is an exhibition that explores these concepts of animal cognition. The other part of the exhibition is at the Oregon Zoo, where you can observe the magnificent animals and see animal cognition in action. The exhibition, developed by the New York Hall of Science, was made possible by the National Science Foundation (NSF,) and allowed OMSI and the Oregon Zoo to partner in bringing the message of animal cognition to the public. You will find demonstrations and exhibit pieces at both institutions. At OMSI, the exhibition is in the Life Hall and is accompanied by daily demonstrations, usually between 10am-1pm. The exhibition will be on display until August 19.

One such demonstration is of course about Bowerbirds! Using the same cognitive abilities of Bowerbirds, we gathered a bunch of local items and let visitors design and build bowers based on what they think is attractive. Dancing is optional during the demonstration, but hilarious when it happens. We will send along a binder full of these photos (examples below) to other museums that will eventually showcase the Wild Minds exhibition. Visitors at these museums will be able to add to the collection, so we might see what bowers look like from “habitats” across the country.

Let us know how you would decorate your bower, better yet, show us!



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