Every year on February 14th, millions of us all over the world will spend our money trying to prove how much we love someone. In the US alone, it is thought that an annual spend of around $20 billion leaves our wallets and purses, all in the name of one man. But why St Valentine’s day? The person who became Saint Valentine has been hotly disputed over the years, as the name was very popular back in the 3rd century, and scholars think there may be up to twelve contenders for the origin story.
However, one particular Valentine killed by the Romans on 14th February in the year 269 for preaching the word of Christ was beatified for eternity. For hundreds of years, this martyr was, among other things, the saint of beekeeping, and epilepsy; love and romance are nowhere to be found. That is, until English poet Geoffrey Chaucer came along.
Eleven centuries after one poor Valentine met his end, the idea that Valentine’s Day is a day for courting your future partner was plucked entirely from one man’s imagination. Witnessing the beginnings of breeding season one spring in the 1380s, Chaucer decided to write a poem all about it called The Parliament of Fowls. In that poem, he stated that birds chose their partners on one specific day only: St Valentine’s Day. The rest is indeed history.
But while we spend money on flowers and cards and restaurants and who knows what, when it comes to impressing the ladies, birds know that not only are the best things in life free, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.
There are thousands of fabulous and fantastical courtship displays between birds the world over; the thrill of the bald eagle’s high-speed chase, the great-crested grebe’s weed-flapping dance, or the Clark’s grebe ‘rushing’ display; the majesty of the flamingo’s en masse choreography; the bizarre and quite hilarious moonwalk of the red-capped manakin. But there is one family of birds who have developed some rather extreme techniques.
When the warmer weather arrives, birds begin seeking each other out as breeding season starts. This is one of the most energy-consuming stages of a bird’s life, and there is little time to spare, and courtship rituals take place in earnest. Most birds try to conserve as much energy as they can for the actual breeding part of the whole cycle of events, but not so the bowerbirds.
The word bower comes from the Old English būr, which means dwelling, especially an attractive one. Bowerbirds have developed a remarkable courtship ritual that requires great effort, time and commitment, and this has earned them the right to bear their endeavours in their name.
There are around 27 known species of this passerine found in parts of Australia and throughout New Guinea, ranging in size from between 20cm (the golden bowerbird) to 40cm (the aptly named great bowerbird). Also known as the architect bird, one of the most famous examples of film footage of a bowerbird creating its extraordinary structure was televised in 2000 as part of BBC’s Natural World series presented by the inestimable David Attenborough. Overnight, millions of people knew all about the lengths to which one bird will go to find love.
There are variations throughout each species, but most bowerbirds focus on creating one of two types of bower. There are the maypole bowers which are created by placing sticks around a sturdy upright sapling, topped off by a roof, and avenue bowers, where two walls of sticks are built facing each other, forming the avenue, sometimes meeting at the top in an arch. But it isn’t just that the structures are some of the most elaborate designs this side of human creation, but how they are decorated.
Bowerbird males will spend many hours every day for around one week foraging under leaf litter for items that have to be perfect. They are usually brightly coloured, with blue being a favorite color to choose, and can be anything from leaves, flowers, feathers, shells, stones, berries, even pieces of plastic, or coins, metal nails, rifle shells, or pieces of polished glass.
Once he has gathered all of these treasures, he places them all around and also in the structure: he decorates his bower, carefully placing each item just-so, going back several times in some cases to adjust the angle or exchange one item for another. A few naughty males will steal the best-looking bits from other bowers, and some will even destroy rival males’ bowers in an act of ultimate pettiness.
Some species will incorporate a mossy terraced lawn out front, and some – the satin and regent bowerbirds – even paint the walls with a mix of saliva, charcoal and vegetable pulp.
The females will then take a tour of the land, visiting multiple bowers and inspecting the quality of the craftsmanship, all the while the males are performing a little jig outside or even through the bower, practically shouting “look what I made!”
After all that effort, the structure isn’t even used for nesting. Many people think that the male is building a nest, but the bower is solely for showing off – if the female likes what she sees, they mate, and then she will build a comparatively low-key affair of just a few twigs and moss in the forked branches of a tree where she will eventually lay the eggs and then rear them, often alone. The original bower that meant so much for a short space of time is left to be reclaimed by the elements, its purpose served.
But not all bowerbirds just create. One species also uses the eyes in its head to up the ante and lure the ladies in. The flame bowerbird – so-called because of the magnificently vibrant red, orange and yellow plumage – can do something absolutely remarkable.
Once he is sure he has the attention of at least one female, he will use powerful muscles in his bright yellow irises to increase and decrease the size of the pupil in a pulsing motion, and not only that, but he can also do it one eye at a time, alternately, in what essentially amounts to a hypnotic and mesmerizing eye dance.
Tiny black pin pricks become wide gaping holes from second to second, and all the while the bird is also performing a little dance of headbutts and whirring wings and making the most peculiar wheezing sound with its throat. This can last for several minutes. The females have quite the show to enjoy.
This Valentine’s Day, why not impress the person of your dreams by gathering some twigs, sweet wrappers and moss and building an amazing tree fort, or how about exercising some other muscles and giving each other the eye whilst sounding like you have chronic emphysema? You never know, it could be the makings of your lucky night.