Feature

Fairy-wrens

18 Jun. 2024
Damien Cook/AWC

Fairy-wrens spend their days flitting among native grasses and shrubs, snacking on small insects and seeds. They are found across much of Australia, from inland arid grasslands, mallee shrubland, to dense temperate forests.

During the breeding season each year, mature males moult into their nuptial plumage. The species are sexually dimorphic, in that the males tend to be vividly coloured during the mating season, while the females maintain their duller colour. Interestingly, despite breeding pairs being socially monogamous, each partner still mates with other individuals, accruing their reputation for infidelity.

Juvenile fairy-wrens mature in one to three years, depending on the species. The White-winged Fairy-wren takes four years to mature and moult into breeding plumage. This phenomenon is known as delayed plumage maturation. It is thought to provide an evolutionary advantage as young fairy-wrens cannot effectively compete with older males for limited breeding opportunities.

A male Purple-crowned Fairy-wren during mating season, seen here with his vivid purple cap feathers, and females of the same species. Niki Teunissen/AWC
A male Purple-crowned Fairy-wren during mating season, seen here with his vivid purple cap feathers, and females of the same species.

Something that is perhaps less well-known is the complex social system of fairy-wrens. Australian fairy-wrens are cooperative breeders, a life-history trait observed throughout the animal kingdom which involves mature individuals delaying their own reproduction and investing in the care of offspring that are not their own.

Cooperative breeding is likely to have evolved from the direct benefits of group living such as a lower feeding effort per carer and an increased efficacy of nest defence, particularly where food availability is inconsistent and unpredictable. Cooperative breeding is known to increase offspring survival rates, increasing population size and resilience.

Researchers at Monash University conducted a two-year study of Superb Fairy-wrens during autumn and winter months and discovered that breeding groups often associate with other breeding groups, forming what has been labelled a supergroup.

Juvenile Red-backed Fairy-wren feeding on insects at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, Western Australia. Wayne Lawler/AWC
Juvenile Red-backed Fairy-wren feeding on insects at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, Western Australia.

These supergroups will interact with other supergroups in a larger community setting, before splitting back into the original, territorial family groups during the next breeding season in spring. It was hypothesised that this formation of larger groups during winter was likely to allow individuals to exploit larger territories when food is scarce and to provide additional protection against predators.

In fairy-wren species, these smaller family groups include a breeding pair and several other fairy-wren helpers, typically previous offspring of that same pair, all work together to raise and care for the young chicks. Clutch sizes are between three and four chicks and these youngsters remain in the nest for up to two months. Nests are loosely woven domes of twigs, spider webs, and grass, lovingly lined with wool, feathers, and animal hair.

A Purple-crowned Fairy-wren nest. The dome-shaped nests are made from rootlets, grass stems, leaves and bark, and are lined with fine rootlets and grass. Niki Teunissen/AWC
A Purple-crowned Fairy-wren nest. The dome-shaped nests are made from rootlets, grass stems, leaves and bark, and are lined with fine rootlets and grass.
Purple-crowned Fairy-wren (Malurus coronatus) Brad Leue/AWC

Purple-crowned Fairy-wren (Malurus coronatus)

Conservation status: Endangered (western subspecies); Near-threatened (eastern subspecies)

The Purple-crowned Fairy-wren is named for the brilliant purple crown of males in their breeding plumage. Their back and wings are brown, and the throat and belly a creamy white to tan. They have a black mask, nape, and bill.

Female Purple-crowned Fairywrens also moult into breeding plumage, but it is not as dramatic. Their wings, back, and belly are coloured similarly to males, however their crown is light grey, and they have beautiful chestnut ear coverts. Their tail is blue-grey.

Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens live exclusively within riparian habitats, preferring Pandanus palms and long, grassy vegetation. They are territorial, singing duets of loud trilling to defend their habitat from intruders.

Since 2005, AWC has been working in a long-term and ongoing collaborative research partnership with Monash University on the Mornington-Marion Downs and Pungalina-Seven Emu Wildlife Sanctuaries.

White-winged Fairy-wren (Malurus leucopterus) David Jones/AWC

White-winged Fairy-wren (Malurus leucopterus)

Conservation status: Endangered

There are two subspecies of the White-winged Fairy-wren. M. leucopterus subsp. leuconotus can be found across most of central and western mainland Australia, occupying low shrubland in arid and semi-arid regions, specifically saltpans and chenopod shrubland.

M.leucopterus subsp. edouardi is found exclusively on Dirk Hartog and Barrow Islands off the Western Australian coast.

Juvenile and female White-winged Fairy-wren have a grey-brown back, wings and crown, while the chest and belly are whiter, and their tail is tinged with blue.

The breeding plumage of adult males is a distinguishing characteristic between the two subspecies. The mainland subspecies is a rich dark blue tone, while the island subspecies is a beautiful glossy black. Both breeding males have white shoulder and wing patches, hence the species’ name.

Because of their wide distribution, this Fairy-wren is protected across several AWC sanctuaries including Kalamurina, Newhaven, and Buckaringa Wildlife Sanctuaries, where they are regularly recorded in the annual EcoHealth report.

Variegated Fairy-wren (Malurus lamberti) David Jones/AWC

Variegated Fairy-wren (Malurus lamberti)

Conservation status: Least concern

The Variegated Fairy-wren is found through coastal New South Wales and southeast Queensland, foraging for insects in the dense scrub habitat of wet forests.

Adult males in their breeding plumage have a striking blue tail, a bright blue helmet, black breast, royal blue back, and chestnut shoulders.

Adult females are greyish with pale fronts and a dark red patch between the eyes and bill. They are gregariously natured, making up for their small size with their impressive vocals.

AWC is protecting this species in Curramore Wildlife Sanctuary, where they are commonly detected in wet and dry sclerophyll forest habitats.

In 2022, ecologists monitored their presence using a Bird Call Playback Survey, where a speaker plays the call of the target species for a minute, followed by another minute of looking and listening for the Fairy-wren.

Splendid Fairy-wren (Malurus splendens) Wayne Lawler/AWC

Splendid Fairy-wren (Malurus splendens)

Conservation status: Least concern

The Splendid Fairy-wren certainly lives up to its name, with breeding males shimmering in electric blue plumage. In contrast, females and males in non-breeding plumage are a drab brown with a dull blue tail.

These Fairy-wrens are found across arid and semi-arid Australia, in shrublands and shrubby woodlands. They are largely sedentary birds however they can become semi-nomadic during times of resource scarcity.

They are often observed perched on a high bare branch to survey their territory. During the breeding season, males woo females by fanning their cheek feathers and presenting a gift of yellow or purple flower petals. The female Fairy-wren will then construct the oval-domed nest and incubate the eggs.

The Splendid Fairy-wren is safeguarded across many AWC sanctuaries, consistently appearing in annual species surveys at AWC’s Scotia, Mt Gibson, Paruna, and Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuaries, among others.

Red-backed Fairy-wren (Malurus melanocephalus) Brad Leue/AWC

Red-backed Fairy-wren (Malurus melanocephalus)

Conservation status: Least concern

The Red-backed Fairy-wren is the smallest of the Australian fairy-wrens, weighing just 8g when fully grown.

They are found in dense grassy understorey in tropical and sub-tropical Australia and are mostly sedentary but can move locally during the breeding season to mate with other individuals.

Breeding males are a magnificent glossy black with a scarlet saddle while adult females, non-breeding males, and immature birds are a warm brown.

This species of fairy-wren is protected across the majority of AWC’s northern coastal sanctuaries including Piccaninny Plains and Pungalina-Seven Emu Wildlife Sanctuaries, as well as Bullo River Station.

They are studied using Bird Call Playback Surveys and abundance is reported as an occupancy rate; the ratio between the number of sites where the Fairy-wren was identified as present and the total number of surveyed sites.

Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) Brad Leue/AWC

Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus)

Conservation status: Least concern

The Superb Fairy-wren is found throughout southeastern Australia, abundant in parks, gardens and open woodlands.

Breeding males have a pale blue crown, cheek, and back, with black feathers extending from the bill, through the eyes, and to the back of the head. Non-breeding males are a greyish brown with a black bill and bright blue tails, while females have a duller blue tail and a reddish bill.

Fascinatingly, male Superb Fairy-wrens will sing to their eggs such that when the chicks hatch, they recognise the unique song of their father.

The Superb Fairy-wren is protected across AWC properties in southeastern Australia including the Pilliga Conservation Area, where occupancy rates in the 2022-23 survey were 20% higher inside the predator-proof fence.

Threats to fairy-wrens
Unfortunately, fairy-wrens are threatened by domestic and feral cats, as well as habitat destruction by feral herbivores, grazing livestock, land clearing, and altered fire regimes.

AWC is responding by protecting and conserving high-quality fairy-wren habitats across our many strategically placed sanctuaries and partnership areas. An exciting opportunity is the long-term research project at Mornington-Marion Downs Wildlife Sanctuary, in conjunction with Monash University, working to enhance valuable riparian habitat for the endangered Purple-crowned Fairy-wren.

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Wayne Lawler/AWC
Wayne Lawler/AWC
Feature 18 Jun. 2024

Fairy-wrens