Given all these talents, some researchers have attributed an aesthetic sense and the glimmerings of culture to bowerbirds, traits rarely suggested as found in any species aside from our own. (Some primates, such as chimpanzees and orangutans, are now regarded as having cultural traditions but not aesthetics.)
"The females are the judges," Benz reminds me as he opens the blind. I cross my fingers for Donald and slip inside. It is just after dawn and raining lightly, the kind of weather Macgregor's bowerbirds prefer in the mating season. From the blind, I see Donald on his singing perch. He isn't much to look at: a blue jay-size fellow with plain, olive-drab feathers and a single streak of orange on his head. For a while, he makes his machine-gun-like call. Then a tatty yellow leaf falls onto his tower's mossy lawn. Donald flies down at once to remove it. The Marys would like that, I think.
All the bower builders are avid maintenance men, picky about what they collect and fussy about their arrangements. In Australia, in front of his stick-and-grass avenue, a male satin bowerbird, whose eyes are a striking blue, displays blue parrot feathers, white snail shells, and yellow and purple blossoms. For sheer obsessive collecting, few bowerbirds match the great bowerbird of the open woodlands of northern Australia. These males amass thousands of white and gray pebbles, snail shells and sheep vertebrae, piles of green and purple glass, rifle shell casings, colorful plastic strips, wire, bottle caps, tinfoil, mirrors—in short, almost anything bright and shiny, even CDs. These things please the females, of course, but the birds also use them in competing with one another. "They fight, steal each other's ornaments, and shred each other's bowers," says Natalie Doerr, a researcher from the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is documenting the items males most covet and steal from each other's bowers. "They don't have antlers to fight with, so they fight over their stuff."
Macgregor's males stage similar turf wars, but no challengers appear at Donald's tower. Back on his perch, he speeds up his song—a signal that he's spotted a female. But so have other nearby males, which also begin singing lovelorn tunes—all of them vying for this one lady in the treetops. The rain pours down harder, Donald's call intensifies, and like any chick-lit fan, I just want to know: Whom will this Mary choose? I keep my fingers crossed for Donald.