Ptilonorhynchidae – Bowerbirds & Catbirds

Flame Bowerbird Sericulus ardens ©Sam Woods Website

Bowerbirds make up the bird family Ptilonorhynchidae. They are renowned for their unique courtship behaviour, whereby males build a structure and decorate it with sticks and brightly coloured objects in an attempt to attract a mate.

They are medium to large-sized passerines, ranging from the golden bowerbird at 22 centimetres and 70 grams to the great bowerbird at 40 centimetres and 230 grams. Their diet consists mainly of fruit but may also include insects (especially for nestlings), flowers, nectar and leaves in some species.

The bowerbirds have an Austro-Papuan distribution, with ten species endemic to New Guinea, eight endemic to Australia. Although their distribution is centred on the tropical regions of New Guinea and northern Australia, some species extend into central, western, and southeastern Australia. They occupy a range of different habitats, including rainforest, eucalyptus and acacia forest, and shrublands.

Bowerbirds as a group have the longest life expectancy of any passerine family with significant banding studies. The two most studied species, the Green Catbird and Satin Bowerbird, have life expectancies of around eight to ten years and one Satin Bowerbird has been known to live for twenty-six years. For comparison, the common raven, the heaviest passerine species with significant banding records, has not been known to live longer than 21 years.

The most notable characteristic of bowerbirds is their extraordinarily complex courtship and mating behaviour, where males build a bower to attract mates. There are two main types of bowers. One clade builds so-called maypole bowers, which are constructed by placing sticks around a sapling; in some species, these bowers have a hut-like roof. The other major bowerbuilding clade builds an avenue type-bower made of two walls of vertically placed sticks. In and around the bower, the male places a variety of brightly coloured objects he has collected. These objects, usually different among each species, may include hundreds of shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, and even discarded plastic items, coins, nails, rifle shells, or pieces of glass. The males spend hours arranging this collection.

Bowers within a species share a general form but do show significant variation, and the collection of objects reflects the biases of males of each species and its ability to procure items from the habitat, often stealing them from neighbouring bowers. Several studies of different species have shown that colours of decorations males use on their bowers match the preferences of females.

According to most authorities, there are 27 species of bowerbirds and allies in the family Ptilonorhynchidae; they are:

Ochre-breasted Catbird Ailuroedus stonii
White-eared Catbird Ailuroedus buccoides
Tan-capped Catbird Ailuroedus geislerorum
Green Catbird Ailuroedus crassirostris
Spotted Catbird Ailuroedus maculosus
Huon Catbird Ailuroedus astigmaticus
Black-capped Catbird Ailuroedus melanocephalus
Northern Catbird Ailuroedus jobiensis
Arfak Catbird Ailuroedus arfakianus
Black-eared Catbird Ailuroedus melanotis

Tooth-billed Bowerbird Scenopoeetes dentirostris

Archbold’s Bowerbird Archboldia papuensis

Vogelkop Bowerbird Amblyornis inornata
MacGregor’s Bowerbird Amblyornis macgregoriae
Streaked Bowerbird Amblyornis subalaris
Golden-fronted Bowerbird Amblyornis flavifrons

Golden Bowerbird Prionodura newtoniana

Masked Bowerbird Sericulus aureus
Flame Bowerbird Sericulus ardens
Fire-maned Bowerbird Sericulus bakeri
Regent Bowerbird Sericulus chrysocephalus

Satin Bowerbird Ptilonorhynchus violaceus

Western Bowerbird Chlamydera guttata
Great Bowerbird Chlamydera nuchalis
Spotted Bowerbird Chlamydera maculata
Yellow-breasted Bowerbird Chlamydera lauterbachi
Fawn-breasted Bowerbird Chlamydera cerviniventris

Species Links
  • Regent Bowerbird Sericulus chrysocephalus

    Species Account
    The Regent Bowerbird is a small, slim bowerbird with a long, straight slender bill…
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 27

Useful Reading
  • The Bowerbirds

    by Clifford B Frith & Dawn W Frith with illustrations by Eustace Barnes OUP 2004 See Fatbirder Review ISBN: 0198548443 Buy this book from

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