Splendid Fairy-wren

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Common Name: Splendid Fairy-wren
Scientific Name: Malurus splendens

Size: 5 ½ inches (14 cm)

Habitat: Australia; found across much of the Australian continent from central-western New South Wales and southwestern Queensland over to coastal Western Australia. It inhabits typically dry and shrubby areas; mulga and mallee in drier parts of the country and forested areas in the southwest. The western subspecies splendens and eastern Black-backed Fairywren (subspecies melanotus) are largely sedentary, although the Turquoise Fairywren (subspecies musgravei) is thought to be partially nomadic. Forestry plantations of pine (Pinus spp.) and eucalypts are also unsuitable as they lack undergrowth.

Status: Least Concern. Global population: Unknown. Unlike the eastern Superb Fairy-wren, the Splendid Fairy-wren has not adapted well to human occupation of the landscape and has disappeared from some urbanized areas.

Diet: Insects (mostly arthropods such as ants, grasshoppers, crickets, spiders and bugs) and supplements with seeds

Nesting: Exhibiting a high degree of sexual dimorphism, the male in breeding plumage is a small, long-tailed bird of predominantly bright blue and black coloration. Non-breeding males, females and juveniles are predominantly grey-brown in color; this gave the early impression that males were polygamous as all dull-colored birds were taken for females. It comprises several similar all-blue and black subspecies that were originally considered separate species.

The Splendid Fairy-wren is notable for several peculiar behavioral characteristics; birds are socially monogamous and sexually promiscuous, meaning that although they form pairs between one male and one female, each partner will mate with other individuals and even assist in raising the young from such trysts. Male wrens pluck pink or purple petals and display them to females as part of a courtship display.

Several courtship displays by Splendid Fairy-wren males have been recorded; the 'Sea Horse Flight', so named for the similarity of movements to those by a seahorse, is an exaggerated undulating flight where the male, with his neck extended and his head feathers erect, flies and tilts his body from horizontal to vertical and by rapidly beating wings is able to descend slowly and spring upwards after alighting on the ground. The 'Face fan' display may be seen as a part of aggressive or sexual display behaviors; it involves the flaring of the blue ear tufts by erecting the feathers.

Another interesting habit of males of this and other fairy-wren species during the reproductive season is to pluck petals (in this species, predominantly pink and purple ones which contrast with their plumage) and show them to female fairy-wrens. Petals often form part of a courtship display and are presented to a female in the male fairywren's own or another territory. Outside the breeding season males may sometimes still show petals to females in other territories, presumably to promote themselves. It is notable that fairywrens are socially monogamous and sexually promiscuous: pairs will bond for life, but regularly mate with other individuals; a proportion of young will have been fathered by males from outside the group. Young are often raised not by the pair alone, but with other males who also mated with the pair's female assisting. Thus, petal-carrying might be a behavior that strengthens the pair-bond. Petal carrying might also be a way for extra males to gain matings with the female. In either case, the data does not strongly link petal-carrying and presenting to a copulation soon thereafter.

Breeding occurs from late August through to January, though heavy rain in August may delay this. The nest is built by the female; it is a round or domed structure made of loosely woven grasses and spider webs, with an entrance in one side close to the ground and well-concealed in thick and often thorny vegetation, such as Acacia pulchella or a species of Hakea. One or two broods may be laid during the breeding season. A clutch of two to four dull white eggs with reddish-brown splotches and spots, measuring 12 × 16 mm (½ × ⅝ in), are laid. Incubation takes about two weeks. The female incubates the eggs for 14 or 15 days; after hatching, nestlings are fed and their fecal sacs removed by all group members for 10–13 days, by which time they are fledged. Young birds remain in the family group as helpers for a year or more before moving to another group, usually an adjacent one, or assuming a dominant position in the original group. In this role they feed and care for subsequent broods

Cool Facts: Also known simply as the Splendid Wren or more colloquially in Western Australia as the Blue Wren.

Current taxonomy recognizes four subspecies: M. s. splendens in Western Australia, M. s. musgravei in central, M. s. melanotus in inland eastern Australia and M. s. emmottorum in southwestern Queensland. Initially, the three were considered separate species as they were described far from their borders with other subspecies. However, as the interior of Australia was explored, it became apparent there were areas of hybridization where subspecies overlapped. Thus in 1975, the first three forms below were reclassified as subspecies of Malurus splendens.

  • M. s. splendens, known as the Splendid- or Banded Fairy-wren, is found in much of central and southern Western Australia. This was the original form named by Quoy and Gaimard in 1830.
  • M. s. melanotus, known as the Black-backed Fairy-wren, was described by John Gould in 1841 as a separate species. It is found in the mallee country of South Australia (Sedan area north-east of Adelaide) through western Victoria, western New South Wales and into south western Queensland. It differs from the nominate subspecies in having a black back and whitish lower belly.
  • M. s. musgravei was described in 1922 by amateur ornithologist Gregory Mathews as a separate species from the Lake Eyre Basin in central Australia. It is found in mulga and mallee country across much of South Australia and the southern Northern Territory. It has lighter blue or turquoise upperparts than the Splendid Fairywren, as well as a black rump. This is largely synonymous with what was known as M. callainus or the Turquoise Fairywren which had been collected by ornithologist Samuel White and named by John Gould in 1867. The original collection bearing the name callainus was deemed a hybrid between what is now called musgravei and melanotus, and hence musgravei was resurrected as the name for the Turquoise Fairywren.
  • M. s. emmottorum was described from southwestern Queensland and given subspecific status in the 1999 review by Schodde and Mason. It was named after Angus Emmott, a farmer and amateur biologist in western Queensland.

Major nest predators include Australian Magpies, butcherbirds, Laughing Kookaburra currawongs, crows and ravens, shrike-thrushes as well as introduced mammals such as the Red Fox, domestic cats and the Black Rat. Like other species of fairy wrens, Splendid Fairywrens may use a 'Rodent-run' display to distract predators from nests with young birds. While doing this, the head, neck and tail of the bird are lowered, the wings are held out and the feathers are fluffed as the bird runs rapidly and voices a continuous alarm call.

Found in Songbird ReMix Australia Volume I

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