If this was a poll on which Australian bird is featured most frequently on homewares, superb fairy-wrens would win by a mile. Teacups, plates, tea towels and cushions across the country are adorned with their image. The combination of their tiny size (they weigh about the same as a 20c piece), pointing up tail and the way they cuddle together makes them pretty darn adorable. I’m going to argue though that there are many more reasons that you should vote for them in 2019 than simply “they look cute”.
It is not only the public that is drawn to this gorgeously sweet bird. Superb fairy-wrens are actually one of our most well-studied Australian birds (heck I did my PhD on them). The more we learn about them the more we realise that that image of a sweet happy family unit is far from reality.
Otherwise known as blue wrens and Jenny wrens, it was thought that family groups consisted of a blue male and his harem of females. In reality, a lot of those little brown birds are juvenile males, and in a territory there can also be multiple “blue” males (with one dominant male). Female fledglings are often forced to move out in search of a place of their own as soon as mum is ready to breed again but the ultimate mama’s boys, on the other hand, are able to stay. They do pay board though, helping raise the younger chicks.
As well as being cooperative breeders, they also “socially monogamous”. It’s a fabulous term though not one I would suggest bringing up to your own partner (unless you are into that sort of thing).
Males leave the territory during the day and perform courtship displays to other females (which involves the use of yellow petals and impressive dance moves like the sea-horse flight and face fanning).
Paternity testing of offspring by ANU researchers in the late 1980s found that almost all (95%) broods contained chicks fathered by males outside the territory. Basically, most of the chicks are not related to the “dad”. What’s more, mating does not happen during those elaborate daytime dance parties, females leave their territories before dawn to find the male with the best moves. That is a lot of sneaking around, and not just by the males.
Yes, female superb fairy-wrens hold a lot of power. They control mate choice (both their social pair-bond male and their extra-pair dalliances), build their nest alone and sit on the eggs.
And it is tough to raise young. Nest predators aside, there are also two cuckoo species that look for superb fairy-wren nests to lay their eggs. In an extraordinary effort to outwit these cuckoos, female superb fairy-wrens sing to their eggs to teach the embryo a “password”. Sophie Kleindorfer from Flinders University found that in order to get fed once they hatch, chicks must repeat this one-note password in their begging calls. Cuckoo eggs don’t get as many lessons as they hatch earlier, so miss out on learning the call, and then don’t get fed.
All these shenanigans can (if you are lucky) be going on in your own backyard. Our towns and cities in south-east Australia can provide great places for superb fairy-wrens but life in the suburbs is tough and superb fairy-wrens are not as common as they once where.
You can help out your local superb fairy-wrens (or other small native birds) by planting dense native shrubs in your garden (preferably insect-attracting), mulching your garden well to encourage beneficial invertebrates, keeping cats indoors or in a run and installing a bird bath. Join us at BirdLife Australia’s Birds in Backyards program where you can learn more about native birds, participate in citizen science and create great spaces for them.
I’m sure I have shattered the wholesome image that many of you have about this well-loved little Aussie bird and you may never sip from that one teacup quite the same way again. The lying, the scheming and the intrigue puts storylines on The Bold and the Beautiful to shame. But honestly, it makes me love them just a little bit more and hopefully you too.