Satin bowerbirds fall victim to plastic waste, wildlife experts urge mindfulness

Satin bowerbirds fall victim to plastic waste, wildlife experts urge mindfulness


Spring is in the air and some may be lucky enough to spot a male satin bowerbird carefully constructing an elaborate courtship bower and decorating it with a range of striking, largely blue, items.

Once upon a time, the decorations included flowers, leaves, feathers, shells, or snakeskins.

Satin bowerbirds — the facts

  • The species lives in rainforests and at the edge of drier forests on coastal and adjacent ranges of eastern Australia.
  • It is found from Cooktown in Queensland to near Melbourne in Victoria.
  • Female satin bowerbirds and young males have olive-green tones and brown wings.
  • Young males will start to acquire their blue-black adult plumage at age five.
  • Adult males will be fully attired at age seven.
  • Satin bowerbirds feed mostly on fruits.

However, satin bowerbirds are increasingly sharing their habitat with humans, often building bowers in backyards.

As they have adapted, their displays have become dominated by plastic waste, including blue bottle tops, milk bottle rings, straws, and pegs.

The Australian Reptile Park\’s general manager head of conservation, Tim Faulkner, said bright, shiny items were a prized find for the busy males and their meticulously-arranged displays.

\”Bowerbirds are found throughout Australia and are driven by female selection of a male\’s ability to build a bower, which is the shape of a horseshoe made up of sticks,\” he said.

\”They all collect things to put in their bower to impress females and those things to them are prized jewels.

\”Unfortunately, nowadays with our satin bowerbirds, they like blue things, and there\’s not much blue in nature, so they collect artificial things and they pose great risk to them.\”

Mr Faulkner said it would be a rare thing today to find a bowerbird that had not used artificial objects.

\”I\’ve seen every single one of Australia\’s bowerbirds in remote parts, from across the top of northern Australia, Western Australia and over into New South Wales,\” he said.

\”I haven\’t seen a bower that doesn\’t have rubbish in it of some description, or an artificial object.\”

Suffering of trapped birds

A male satin bowerbird will often pick up his treasured blue items during his courtship display to show them off to his lady.

\”He will do this incredible song and dance. They will often hide behind their bower and then just peek their eye out to gauge the female\’s interest and then do very vocal, very odd metallic type vocalisations,\” Mr Faulkner said.

\”They\’ll parade, tail up in the air, backwards and forwards and all this, to try and let a female mate with them.\”

Unfortunately, picking up plastic items is risky for the bowerbirds and can have fatal results.

Mr Faulkner said he was seeing an increasing number of satin bowerbirds caught in bottle rings.

\”I\’ve seen some really tragic cases; it\’s long-standing suffering,\” he said.

\”The worst I have had is when bowerbirds have got the ring pulls off bottles and they pick it up in their beak.

\”It flips and goes over their head and it gets stuck on the inside of its mouth and over its head.

\”For me to get two or three like that here in a year is fairly normal so it is deeply concerning how many there are out there.\”

Former National Parks and Wildlife Ranger Catherine Mardell said she had also seen a bowerbird which had become caught in waste, in Port Macquarie, on the NSW mid-north coast.

\”I found a bowerbird in perfect condition that had a blue milk ring caught around its neck,\” she said.

\”It was through its mouth and it couldn\’t get it off. It was so distressing to see [and] I was sad I couldn\’t have seen it when it was still alive and got it off.\”

Cut plastic rings before throwing out

Mr Faulkner said people needed to be mindful about reducing plastic rubbish and disposing of it carefully, including cutting plastic rings.

\”The thing that people need to do is be aware,\” he said.

\”Any plastics like that, who knows what\’s going to eat it or get tangled up in it so dispose of them correctly and most importantly, with those bottle ring pulls? Cut them in half.\”

Ms Mardell said there were also innovative solutions to be found.

\”In Canberra, it used to be blue rings on the milk and I think it was in the late 90s that they changed it to black so they were less attractive to bowerbirds,\” she said.

Future lies in children\’s love of nature

Victorian commercial beekeeper Ben Moore supplies beeswax for wraps, as an alternative to plastic cling wrap.

\”I have seen two birds affected, where a blue plastic ring from a bottle top was around their neck,\” Mr Moore said.

\”People need to be more aware of the use of plastics [and] that goes through to plastic bags, which end up in the ocean.

\”I think the statistics are that the average Australian uses between 60 to 70 kilos of plastic waste per year.

\”That\’s individually, not per household so that really adds up.\”

Meanwhile, Mr Faulkner is hoping that in the future, people will become more aware of bowerbirds and their amazing courtship behaviours — and importantly, encourage a love of nature in children.

\”You can grab a kid\’s attention with something like a bowerbird that has a bower and you can watch it and see its bower is destroyed or rebuilt,\” he said.

\”In our modern age of technology, where less and less outdoor activities are present, if you can get your children into nature like that, I think it\’s a brighter future for them.\”

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