Red-winged Fairy-wren

Red-winged Fairy-wren

name = Red-winged Fairy-wren

image_width = 220px
image_caption = Male in nuptial plumage,
Margaret River, Western Australia
status = LC
status_system = iucn3.1
status_ref = [BirdLife International 2004. [ Malurus elegans] . [ 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. ] Downloaded on 26 July 2007.]
regnum = Animalia
phylum = Chordata
classis = Aves
ordo = Passeriformes
familia = Maluridae
genus = "Malurus"
species = "M. elegans"
binomial = "Malurus elegans"
binomial_authority = Gould, 1837
synonyms =

range_map_width = 220px
range_map_caption =Approximate range/distribution map of the Red-winged Fairy-wren. Blue indicates presence.
The Red-winged Fairy-wren ("Malurus elegans") is a species of passerine bird in the Maluridae family. It is sedentary and endemic to the southwestern corner of Western Australia. Exhibiting a high degree of sexual dimorphism, the male adopts a brilliantly coloured breeding plumage, with an iridescent silvery-blue crown, ear coverts and upper back, red shoulders, contrasting with a black throat, grey-brown tail and wings and pale underparts. Non-breeding males, females and juveniles have predominantly grey-brown plumage, though males may bear isolated blue and black feathers. No separate subspecies are recognised. Similar in appearance and closely related to the Variegated Fairy-wren ("M. lamberti") and the Blue-breasted Fairy-wren ("M. pulcherrimus"), it is regarded as a separate species as no intermediate forms have been recorded where ranges overlap. Though the Red-winged Fairy-wren is locally common, there is evidence of a decline in numbers.

Bearing a narrow pointed bill adapted for probing and catching insects, the Red-winged Fairy-wren is primarily insectivorous; it forages and lives in the shelter of scrubby vegetation in temperate wetter forests dominated by the Karri ("Eucalyptus marginata"), remaining close to cover to avoid predators. Like other fairy-wrens, it is a cooperative breeding species, with small groups of birds maintaining and defending small territories year-round. Groups consist of a socially monogamous pair with several helper birds who assist in raising the young. There is a higher proportion of female helpers recorded for this species than for other species of fairy-wren. A variety of vocalisations and visual displays have been recorded for communication and courtship in this species. Singing is used to advertise territory, and birds can distinguish other individuals on song alone. Male wrens pluck yellow petals and display them to females as part of a courtship display.


The Red-winged Fairy-wren was officially described by ornithologist John Gould in 1837, who derived the bird's specific name derived from the Latin term "elegans" 'elegant'. [cite book |title=The Birds of Australia and the adjacent islands, Part 1|author=Gould J |year=1837 |publisher=J. Gould |location=London] He gave its location as the East Coast, but realised his error after further collections by John Gilbert from Southwestern Australia.Amateur ornithologist Gregory Mathews described birds from the southern Karri forests as subspecies "warreni" in 1916 on the basis of darker female plumage. [cite journal |author=Mathews GM|year=1916|title=List of additions of new subspecies to, and changes to, my list of the birds of Australia |journal=Austral. Avian Record |volume=3 |pages=25–68] However, others have not observed this subsequently and the consensus is that no separate subspecies are recognized.Schodde R (1982) "The fairy-wrens: a monograph of the Maluridae". Lansdowne Editions, Melbourne.] In fact there is little variation in size or colour within the species between populations or individuals.Rowley & Russell, p. 40–41]

It is one of 12 species of the genus "Malurus", commonly known as fairy-wrens, found in Australia and lowland New Guinea.Rowley & Russell, p. 143] Within the genus it belongs to a group of four very similar species known collectively as Chestnut-shouldered Fairy-wrens. The other three species are the Lovely Fairy-wren "(M. amabilis)" of Cape York, the Variegated Fairy-wren "(M. lamberti)" found across most of the continent, and the Blue-breasted Fairy-wren "(M. pulcherrimus)" of southern Western Australia and the Eyre Peninsula.Rowley & Russell, p. 159] Molecular study showed the Blue-breasted Fairy-wren to be the most closely related to the Red-winged Fairy-wren. [cite journal |author=Christidis L, Schodde R |year=1997|title=Relationships within the Australo-Papuan Fairy-wrens (Aves: Malurinae): an evaluation of the utility of allozyme data |journal=Australian Journal of Zoology |volume=45 |issue=2|pages=113–129 |doi=10.1071/ZO96068 |url= (abstract) |accessdate=2007-09-20]

Like other fairy-wrens, the Red-winged Fairy-wren is unrelated to the true wrens. Initially fairy-wrens were thought to be a member of the old world flycatcher family Muscicapidae or warbler family Sylviidae before being placed in the newly recognised Maluridae in 1975. [Citation | author = Schodde R | title = Interim List of Australian Songbirds | year = 1975 | publisher = RAOU|location = Melbourne] More recently, DNA analysis has shown the family to be related to Meliphagidae (honeyeaters) and the Pardalotidae in a large superfamily Meliphagoidea. [cite journal |last=Barker |first=FK |coauthors= Barrowclough GF, Groth JG |year=2002 |title=A phylogenetic hypothesis for passerine birds; Taxonomic and biogeographic implications of an analysis of nuclear DNA sequence data |journal=Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B |volume=269 |pages=295–308 |doi=10.1098/rspb.2001.1883] [cite journal |last= Barker|first=FK |coauthors=Cibois A, Schikler P, Feinstein J, Cracraft J |year=2004 |month= |title=Phylogeny and diversification of the largest avian radiation |journal=Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA |volume= 101|issue=30 |pages=11040–11045 |format=PDF |url= |accessdate=2007-10-12|doi=10.1073/pnas.0401892101]

Evolutionary history

In his 1982 monograph, ornithologist Richard Schodde proposed a northern origin for the Chestnut-shouldered Fairy-wren group due to the variety of forms in the north and their absence in the southeast of the continent. Ancestral birds spread south and colonised the southwest during a warm and wetter period around 2 million years ago at the end of the Pliocene or beginning of the Pleistocene. Subsequent cooler and drier conditions resulted in loss of habitat and fragmentation of populations. Southwestern birds gave rise to what is now the Red-winged Fairy-wren, while those in the northwest of the continent became the Variegated Fairy-wren. Further warmer, humid conditions again allowed birds to spread southwards; this group, occupying central southern Australia east to the Eyre Peninsula, became the Blue-breasted Fairy-wren. Cooler climate after this resulted in this being isolated as well and evolving into a separate species. Finally, after the end of the last glacial period 12,000–13,000 years ago, the northern Variegated forms have again spread southwards. This has resulted in the ranges of all three species overlapping. Further molecular studies may result in this hypothesis being modified.


The Red-winged Fairy-wren is 15 cm (6 in) long and weighs 8–11 g (0.21–0.38 oz).cite book | author = Simpson K, Day N, Trusler P | title = Field Guide to the Birds of Australia | publisher = Viking O'Neil | year = 1993 | location = Ringwood, Victoria | pages = 392 | id = ISBN 0-670-90478-3] The average tail length is 7.5 cm (3 in), among the longest in the genus.Rowley & Russell, p. 173] Rowley & Russell, p. 36] Averaging convert|10|mm|in|1|abbr=on in males and convert|9.3|mm|in|1|abbr=on in females, the bill is relatively long, narrow and pointed and wider at the base. Wider than it is deep, the bill is similar in shape to those of other birds that feed by probing for or picking insects off their environs. [cite journal |author=Wooller RD|year=1984|title=Bill size and shape in honeyeaters and other small insectivorous birds in Western Australia |journal=Australian Journal of Zoology |volume=32 |pages=657–62|doi=10.1071/ZO9840657]

Like other fairy-wrens, the Red-winged Fairy-wren is notable for its marked sexual dimorphism, males adopting a highly visible breeding plumage of brilliant iridescent blue and chestnut contrasting with black and grey-brown. The brightly coloured crown, ear tufts and upper back are prominently featured in breeding displays.Rowley & Russell, p. 43-44] The male in breeding plumage has a silvery blue crown, ear coverts and upper back, a black throat and nape, bright red-brown shoulders, a long grey-brown tail and wings, and greyish-white belly. Non-breeding males, females and juveniles are predominantly grey-brown in colour, though males may retain traces of blue and black plumage. All males have a black bill and lores (eye-ring and bare skin between eyes and bill), while females have a black bill, rufous lores and pale grey eye-ring. Immature males will develop black lores by six weeks of age and generally moult into an incomplete breeding plumage the first breeding season after hatching.Rowley & Russell, p. 172–73] This has a patchy or spotty appearance, with a mixture of blue and grey feathers on the head, and black and grey on the breast; birds born early in the breeding season will gain more nuptial plumage initially than those born late. Most perfect their nuptial moult by their second spring, though some may need another year.cite journal|author=Russell EM, Rowley I, Brown RJ, Brown MN|year=1991|title=Acquisition of nuptial plumage in the Red-winged Fairy-wren "Malurus elegans" |journal=Corella |volume=15|pages=125–33] Several males have been observed in breeding plumage in a single group at the same time, although it is unknown if or how this is related to dominance or breeding status.Rowley & Russell, p. 46]

Both sexes moult in autumn after breeding, with males assuming an non-breeding plumage. They will moult again into nuptial plumage in winter or spring. Body feathers are replaced at both moults while wing and tail feathers are in spring only, though the latter may be replaced at any time if damaged or worn.Rowley & Russell, p. 45] The blue coloured plumage, particularly the ear-coverts, of the breeding males is highly iridescent due to the flattened and twisted surface of the barbules.Rowley & Russell, p. 44] The blue plumage also reflects ultraviolet light strongly, and so may be even more prominent to other fairy-wrens, whose colour vision extends into this part of the spectrum. [cite journal |author=Bennett ATD, Cuthill IC |year=1994|title=Ultraviolet vision in birds: what is its function? |journal=Vision Research |volume=34|issue=11 |pages=1471–78| doi=10.1016/0042-6989(94)90149-X| pmid=8023459]


Vocal communication among Red-winged Fairy-wrens is used primarily for communication between birds in a social group and for advertising and defending a territory.Rowley & Russell, p. 63] They are able to distinguish different individuals on the basis of song alone, which is integral to the identification of group members and strangers. [cite journal |author=Payne RB, Payne LL, Rowley I, Russell EM |year=1991|title=Social recognition and response to song in cooperative Red-winged Fairy-wrens |journal=Auk |volume=108 |pages=811–19] The basic, or Type I, song is a 1–4 second high-pitched reel consisting of 10–20 short elements per second; it is sung by both males and females, particularly when there is a dispute over territory boundaries.Rowley & Russell, p. 65–66] Singing occurs most frequently before and just after dawn.Rowley & Russell, p. 66] Foraging birds maintain contact with each other by soft, repeating "see-see-see" descending tones, while a loud, sharp "tsit" serves as an alarm call.Rowley & Russell, p. 173]


Survival of fairy-wrens from one season to the next is generally high for such small birds, and the Red-winged Fairy-wren has the highest rate of all—with 78% of breeding males and 77% of breeding females surviving from year to year.Rowley & Russell, p. 128-29] It is not unusual for Red-winged Fairy-wrens to reach 10 years of age, and the oldest known individual to date attained an age of 16 years.Rowley & Russell, p. 130]

Distribution and habitat

The Red-winged Fairy-wren occurs in the wetter, southwest corner of Western Australia, from Moore River north of Perth south through to the Margaret River region and east to Albany. It is common in parts of its range, [cite book|title=Birds of Australia|author=Flegg J, Madge S|year=1995|publisher=New Holland Press |location=Kenthurst, NSW |isbn=1853683531] though there is some evidence of decline from draining of swampland. [Higgins PJ, Peter JM, Steele WK (Eds.) (2001). "Handbook of Australian, New Zealand & Antarctic Birds: Volume 5 (Tyrant-flycatchers to Chats)". Oxford University Press, Victoria. isbn 0-19-553258-9] [cite book |title=Every Australian Bird Illustrated|author=Wade P. "(ed.)" |year=1977 |pages=p. 191|publisher=Rigby|isbn=0727000098] It lives in the understorey of Karri ("Eucalyptus diversicolor") and Jarrah ("Eucalyptus marginata"). Older forests appear to be less favourable habitats, while birds appear to be attracted to disturbed areas after logging. [cite journal|author=Williams MR, Abbott I, Liddelow GL, Vellios C, Wheeler IB, Mellican AF|year=2001|title=Recovery of bird populations after clearfelling of tallopen eucalypt forest in Western Australia |journal=Journal of Applied Ecology |volume=38|pages=910–20 |doi=10.1046/j.1365-2664.2001.00645.x |url=|format=PDF |accessdate=2007-12-25] Fire also results in populations disappearing, returning after a period of two years. [cite journal|author=Christensen PE, Kimber PC|year=1975|title=Effects of prescribed burning on the flora and fauna of south-west Australian forest |journal=Proceedings of the Ecological Society of Australia |volume=9|pages=85–106 |accessdate=2007-12-25] Forestry plantations of pine ("Pinus" spp.) and eucalypts are generally unsuitable as they lack undergrowth.Rowley & Russell, p. 134]

Within the forest habitat, the Red-winged Fairy-wren prefers wetter gullies and riverside Sword Sedge ("Lepidosperma effusum").Rowley & Russell, p. 175] It borders the range of the Variegated Fairy-wren on the northern limit of its range, and the Blue-breasted Fairy-wren in the eastern limit, with the latter two species occupying dryer scrub while the Red-winged Fairy-wren is restricted to wetter forests. The lack of intermediate forms reinforces the status of all three taxa as separate species.Rowley & Russell, p. 164]


Hopping, with both feet leaving the ground and landing simultaneously, is the usual form of locomotion, though birds may run while performing the 'Rodent Run Display' detailed below.Rowley & Russell, p. 42] Its balance is assisted by a proportionally large tail, which is usually held upright and rarely still. The short, rounded wings provide good initial lift and are useful for short flights, though not for extended jaunts.Rowley & Russell, p. 41]

The Red-winged Fairy-wren is a cooperative breeding species, with a pair or small group of birds maintaining and defending a territory year-round. These territories average around 0.4–2.4 hectares (1–6 acres) in optimal habitat of tall Karri forest, although are smaller and restricted to dense riverbank undergrowth in less favourable habitat.The area maintained is large enough to support the group in poor years or to accommodate new members after a good breeding season.Rowley & Russell, p. 58] Groups range from two to nine members in size with an average of four birds, the largest for any fairy-wren studied to date. This is thought to be due to a very high annual survival and occupancy of suitable territory. Though reproduction rates are low, young birds still have few vacancies available for them to disperse into.Rowley & Russell, p. 56] Pairs are socially monogamous, with relationships ending for the most part when one partner dies. The survivor in this case selects a new partner, often a helper bird in the group. Though not directly studied, paired Red-winged Fairy-wrens are likely to be sexually promiscuous, with each partner mating with other individuals. Female helpers are much more common in this species than the other species intensively studied, the Superb Fairy-wren ("M. cyaneus"). Over half the groups have two or more helpers, often female, which feed nestlings and reduce workload of breeding females.Rowley & Russell, p. 93] Helpers have been shown to improve reproductive success in this species by increasing the numbers of young raised successfully per year from 1.3 to 2 birds.Rowley & Russell, p. 94] There is some evidence that groups with male helpers may enlarge the territory boundaries with a subsequent 'budding-off' of a new territory by a helper.Rowley & Russell, p. 99]

Major nest predators include Australian Magpies "(Gymnorhina tibicen)", butcherbirds ("Cracticus" spp.), Laughing Kookaburra "(Dacelo novaeguineae)", currawongs ("Strepera" spp.), crows and ravens ("Corvus" spp.), shrike-thrushes ("Colluricincla" spp.) as well as introduced mammals such as the Red Fox ("Vulpes vulpes"), cat and Black Rat "(Rattus rattus)".Rowley & Russell, p. 121] Like other species of fairy wrens, Red-winged Fairy-wrens 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.

Observed in this species, the 'Wing-fluttering' display is seen in several situations: females responding, and presumably acquiescing, to male courtship displays, juveniles while begging for food, by helpers to older birds, and immature males to senior ones. The fairy-wren lowers its head and tail, outstretches and quivers its wings and holds its beak open silently.Rowley & Russell, p. 77]


Like all fairy-wrens, the Red-winged Fairy-wren is an active and restless feeder, foraging in bracken ("Pteridium esculentum") and low shrubs, as well as in leaf-litter on the ground near shelter. It will occasionally ascend trees up to convert|5|m|ft|0|abbr=on above the ground in the understorey, particularly in the late summer and autumn as the flaking eucalypt bark is a rich source of arthropods. However, birds are exposed to potential predators and forays are therefore brief. It consumes a wide range of small creatures, mostly insects, eating ants and beetles year-round, and adding spiders, bugs and caterpillars to their diet during breeding season.cite journal |author=Wooller RD, Calver MC|year=1981|title=Feeding segregation within an assemblage of small birds in the karri forest understorey |journal=Australian Wildlife Research|volume=8|pages=401–10|doi=10.1071/WR9810401] cite journal|author=Rowley I, Russell EM, Payne RB, Payne LL|year=1988|title=The ecology and breeding biology of the Red-winged Fairy-wren "Malurus elegans" |journal=Emu |volume=88|pages=161–76] During spring and summer, birds are active in bursts through the day and accompany their foraging with song. Insects are numerous and easy to catch, which allows the birds to rest between forays. The group often shelters and rests together during the heat of the day. Food is harder to find during the winter and they are required to spend the day foraging continuously.Rowley & Russell, p. 61–62] Ants in particular are an important food source during this period, constituting a much higher proportion of the diet.Rowley & Russell, p. 49–52]

Courtship and breeding

Like other fairy-wrens, male Red-winged Fairy-wrens have been observed carrying brightly coloured petals to display to females as part of a courtship ritual. In this species, the petals that have been recorded have been yellow or, rarely, white.cite journal |author=Rowley I|year=1991|title=Petal Carrying by Fairy-wrens of the genus "Malurus" |journal=Australian Bird Watcher |volume=14|pages=75–81] Petals are displayed and presented to a female in the male fairy-wren's own or another territory.Rowley & Russell, p. 75] The 'Face fan' display is commonly seen as a part of aggressive or sexual display behaviours; it involves the flaring of the blue ear tufts by erecting the feathers.Rowley & Russell, p. 76] The silvery blue upper back feathers are also used more prominently in display than other species.

The breeding season is shorter than that of other fairy-wrens, occurring from October (rarely September) through to December. Constructed solely by the female,Rowley & Russell, p. 91] the nest is generally situated in thick vegetation and around 20 cm (8 in) above the ground. It is a round or domed structure made of loosely woven grasses and spider webs, with an entrance in one side. The interior may be lined with finer grass and material from "Clematis pubescens" and "Banksia grandis". One or rarely two broods may be laid in a season, the second being laid on average 51 days after the first. A clutch consists of two or three matte cream-white eggs tapered oval in shape with reddish-brown splotches and spots, measuring 12 x 16 mm (.45 x .6 in). [cite book | last = Beruldsen | first = G | title = Australian Birds: Their Nests and Eggs | publisher = self | year = 2003 | location = Kenmore Hills, Qld | pages = 279–80 | id = ISBN 0-646-42798-9] The female incubates the eggs alone for around an hour at a time, after which the male calls her and she will leave to forage urgently for 15–30 minutes before returning. Her long tail is often bent from the cramped nest space and is a useful field indicator of nesting.Rowley & Russell, p. 116] Incubation takes 14 to 15 days, a day less in later broods, and an estimated 94% of eggs hatch successfully. The newly hatched nestlings are altricial–raw red in colour, naked and blind. Within a day, their skin darkens to blue–grey colour as their feathers develop underneath. Sheathed primary feathers emerge through the skin by the third day and eyes begin to open on the fifth day and fully open on the next. Young are fed and their fecal sacs removed by all group members for 11–12 days, by which time they are fledged. Though fully feathered, their tails and wings are not fully grown and they are poor fliers.Rowley & Russell, p. 117] Their wings take another 10 days to develop fully, during which time they generally stay well hidden in cover near the nest. Parents and helper birds will feed them for around one month after fledging. Young birds often remain in the family group as helpers for a year or more before moving to another group. Birds reach sexual maturity at one year of age, but females tend not to breed until their third year as breeding vacancies are scarce.Rowley & Russell, p. 175–76] The nests of Red-winged Fairy-wrens rarely play host to brood parasites, though parasitism by the Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo "(Chrysococcyx basalis)" and Fan-tailed Cuckoo "(Cacomantis flabelliformis)" has been recorded.Rowley & Russell, p. 176]


Cited text

*cite book |last=Rowley |first=Ian |coauthors=Russell, Eleanor |title=Bird Families of the World:Fairy-wrens and Grasswrens |year=1997 |publisher=Oxford University Press |location=Oxford |isbn=0-19-854690-4

External links

* [ BirdLife Species Factsheet]
* [ IUCN Red List]
* [ Red-winged Fairy-wren videos] on the Internet Bird Collection

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