A superb fairywren.

A superb fairywren.

Birds down under — the fairywrens of Australia

Gary Davidson writes about the fairywrens of Australia.

There is a delightful family of birds in Australia called fairywrens. They are not related to true wrens, but have been so named because of their long tails which they keep held high over their backs. These tiny birds come in a variety of colours but many have at least some blue in their plumage. They occur only in Australia and neighbouring New Guinea. In Australia there are nine species scattered throughout the country. Some are found in rainforests, while others are at home in the arid deserts of the country’s interior.

During our recent travels we have seen four of these spritely gems. In far north Queensland we saw the lovely fairywren in the tropical rainforests. This species has a largely blue head and a contrasting reddish-brown back. Like so many of the rainforest species, lovely fairywrens spend a lot of time foraging within the closed forests and thickets, thus making them hard to find.

Also in Queensland we encountered the red-backed fairywren. This species is much more conspicuous in its grassland habitat. It can frequently be seen on fence posts beside grassy fields or roadside edges. The bird is entirely black except for its bright scarlet back.

A third species, the variegated fairywren, is similar in appearance to the lovely but its preferred habitat is brushy thickets in open woodlands making it much easier to see than its similar cousin. The other species we’ve seen recently is the superb fairywren. This bird has bright – almost fluorescent – blue patches on their heads and breast.

Fairywrens are cooperative breeders. Young from previous generations remain to assist with raising successive broods. As a result, they are almost always seen in extended family groups. Such a group generally consist of one adult pair and a number of immature birds. The females and young are generally brown in colour so distinguishing females from young birds can be difficult.

Another interesting mating strategy has recently been observed among some fairywrens. Most species of birds refrain from courting and displaying to females when predators are in the vicinity. It doesn’t pay to advertise your presence when a predator is nearby! But fairywrens have used this to their advantage. It seems that females are much more alert when there is danger around. Male fairywrens have been observed singing in response to butcherbird calls.

Researcher Dr Emma Greig has stated: “So, it seems that male fairywrens may be singing when they know they will have an attentive audience and, based on the response of the females, this strategy may actually work’’.

The other fairywren species in Australia include red-winged, white-winged, splendid, purple-crowned and blue-breasted fairywren. Together they are one of the most delightful bird families I have encountered.


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