On the smaller side: Fairy wrens

Shows Superb fairy-wren, Edward Hunter Heritage Bush Reserve

Superb Fairy-wren, Malurus cyaneus, (probably) female (or maybe young male)

Shows Superb fairy-wren, Edward Hunter Heritage Bush Reserve

The distinctive blue and black masking of the breeding male

Fairy-wrens

These small birds are well-named: their movements are quick and agile, accompanied by song and flashes of orange and blue. They are also reliably seen in the Reserve, in social groups, shifting from bush to bush in the search for insects.

Shows Superb fairy-wren, Edward Hunter Heritage Bush Reserve

On the lookout for food, in the local flowering Cassinia

Shows Superb fairy-wren, Edward Hunter Heritage Bush Reserve

On the lookout for food/ a passing insect, in the protective cover of a blackwood.

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Adaptive qualities

Fairy-like qualities aside, Superb Fairy-wrens are remarkably adaptive. They are social and cooperative, with a socially-monogamous female-and-male pair at the centre of each group. The young can have many fathers and are raised by the group, which consists of young males and females. Their young are the prey of many other birds which also make the Reserve their home – kookaburras, currawongs, grey butcherbirds, shrike-thrushes and ravens – and they work together to keep watch with ready alarm calls if there is danger. They also learn to recognise the alarm calls of other birds, reacting to those when danger approaches.

Fairy-wrens work together to drive off cuckoos – such as the Shining bronze cuckoo, also found in the Reserve – by mobbing them as a group. Cuckoos like to insert their eggs into the nests of these birds but the Fairy-wren has developed some techniques to beat them at their game. For instance, the fairy-wren nestlings learn their mother’s song even while in the egg. This means the cuckoo baby is unable to produce the right song when begging for food. And young birds learn to recognise cuckoos from older birds, driving them off with their group mobbing behaviour.

Importance of habitat

Even these common birds can be affected by the changes we have wrought in the landscape (see, for example, Harrisson et al (2013))  and on the climate (see, for example, Cockburn, Osmond & Double (2008)).

While these birds have been successful at adapting to increasingly urban spaces, their breeding success is supported by access to effective habitat. So, for example, while they survive in narrow roadside verges,  access to broader spaces with good cover means greater availability of partners and helps support genetic diversity. It also means that predator birds will be supported and insect numbers will be kept within parameters supported by the local landscape: in ecological balance.

Sources and further information

The topics in Gisela Kaplan’s (2015) Bird Minds: Cognition and Behaviour of Australian Native Birds (CSIRO Publishing, Clayton South) make this publication thoroughly interesting.

The Wikipedia entry on the Superb Fairy-wren is comprehensive– see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superb_fairywren

Cooper, D. (2012) Fairy wrens show importance of Mum’s word, ABC Science – see http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2012/11/09/3629195.htm

Feeney, W. (2013) Superb fairy-wrens recognise an adult cuckoo….with some help, The Conversation – see https://theconversation.com/superb-fairy-wrens-recognise-an-adult-cuckoo-with-some-help-15124

Magrath, R.D., Haff, T.M., McLachlan, J.R. & Igic, B. (2015) Wild birds learn to eavesdrop on heterospecific alarm calls, Current Biology, 25 (15), 2047-2050 – see https://digitalcollections.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/76696

 

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