FAIRYWRENS & GRASSWRENS
The Fairywrens & Grasswrens are an Australasian family comprised of 14 fairywrens (three genera but 12 are in
), three emu-wrens (
), and 8 grasswrens (
). Each of of them is an absolutely great little bird. Most are active, cock-tailed, territorial, non-migratory foliage-gleaning "wrens;" many have brilliant plumage patterns (they are not closely related to Holarctic wrens at all). Five species are malurids are found only in New Guinea and adjacent islands, but twenty are restricted to Australia. Among these the
(left) is common and conspicuous from southern Queensland to Victoria. The fairywrens are summarized in the grandest family book every published, in my opinion (Schodde 1982; review at bottom of page), and Schodde writes: "Few Australian birds are as familiar as the Superb Fairy-wren, and none so delightfully confiding and full of zest... The astonishing sight of a male in full nuptial regalia escorting four or five brown birds led to a widespread belief that he was polygamous and kept a 'harem' of females. Some even called him the 'Mormon bird.' Sensitive to social convention, naturalists who had come to love and admire his pert cheekiness were suddenly caught with having to defend his honour. This they stoutly upheld, filling much of the ornithological literature with justifications of his valour in protecting territory and of his attentiveness to his brood."
Species in family 25
Species observed [DR] 9 (36%)
Species photo'd [DR] 1
Ironically, all this early energy "to defend his honour" was unnecessary. In 1965, Ian Rowley completed a study of the life history of Superb Fairywren based on observations of banded birds of known age and sex. Family groups were
males with a harem of females -- rather, each pack had just one female mated to the dominant male, and the rest were young males who were kin. These young males remain in drab plumage (as is the dominant male in the non-breeding season) but young females are driven from the territory to disperse widely. Should the dominant male die or lose vigor, a younger male with become the alpha male (Rowley 1965; this interesting lifestyle is shared by a number of unrelated birds around the world, including, as it turns out, Western Bluebirds in my home Monterey County, California).
Yet another brilliantly colored fairywren in Australia is the
(right in a colorful shot by Trevor Quested). They, too, move about in small packs composed of a dominant male and his mate, less brightly colored subordinate males, and often plain colored birds of the year. This is a widespread species throughout the Australian interior but also found along the eastern seaboard; the four races of Variegated Fairywren encompass the widest range of any in this family. I found that the soft buzzy contact notes of this species can be imitated in a version of American "pishing," and that this lisping "pish" was much more effective in Australasia than the usual wren-like pishing scold used in America.
Australia has another eight
fairywrens scattered in habitats from arid scrub in the interior to swampy undergrowth in the southwest, and three emu-wrens with spiky tails that recall the thistletails (in the Furnaridae) of the high Andes, but perhaps no group is as elusive and fascinating as the eight species of grasswrens. Clad in often striking patterns of black, white, gray or chestnut, each species is difficult to locate in its preferred and often isolated habitats. This striking shot of a singing
(right or above) was taken by Trevor Quested in the sand hills of South Australia. I've not met Trevor but I am enamored of this shot (© 2000 Trevor Quested; its use here arranged by Murray Lord; many thanks). Striated Grasswren, as most grasswrens, is restricted to spiny hummocks of spinifex (
) and can be exceptionally elusive as they creep through this low scrub. The Black
grasswrens are restricted to spinifex among wild, bouldery sandstone tablelands in the northwest and north of Australia, respectively; remote regions that can take days and luck with the weather to reach. Equally remote are the saltbush flats of interior south Australia inhabited by Thick-billed Grasswren
or the arid cane grass & spinifex on sand dunes of the Simpson Desert in the center of the continent, home to the near-mythical Eyrean Grasswren
. Until 1972 when its habitat was rediscovered and quantified, the Eyrean Grasswren was thought to be a very rare "lost species" as nothing had been heard of it for about a century.
I have not yet seen a single grasswren despite a couple 2-or-3 week visits to Australia. There is just so much to see in the land down under, and an attempt for any grasswren is an expedition in itself. It is my hope that I can someday devote the time to searching out each of these special birds -- there have been tours organized to do just that -- but one must be prepared for long drives or hikes in rough country where a vehicle breakdown can be perilous. I view searching for the eight grasswrens as one of the great bird challenges of the world. And there is even a chance that eight grasswrens will turn into ten grasswrens. Schodde & Mason (1999) split the Flinders Ranges race of the Striated out as Short-tailed Grasswren
and the Mt. Isa race of Dusky
becomes Kalkadoon Grasswren
[I thank Murray Lord for bringing these taxonomic suggestions to my attention.]
The five fairywrens of New Guinea are equally fabulous. Wallace's Fairywren
is an arboreal species of the lowlands which does not cock its tail, while Orange-crowned Fairywren
is a cock-tailed skulker restricted to high montane rain-forests. Both species are assigned to monotypic genera and both are scarce and local; I've not seen either one despite longish trips to both sides of New Guinea. The three
fairywrens of New Guinea are also special. White-shouldered
is a grassland species in lowland and mid-montane elevations. While camped in a hut in the Vogelkop of Irian Jaya, we passed through a territory of a pair of these pied sprites daily enroute to the primary forest above the little village of Mokwam. Its latin name emphasizes one unique feature of this family: a bare intrascapular patch of skin on the upper back that is not covered by a tract of feathers. Some species have evolved longer feathers on the sides of this bare spot which cover it in normal activity, but that can be raised in courtship to show a dramatic fluffy array of otherwise hidden feathers.
The male Emperor Fairywren
is a beautiful cobalt blue, black-faced bird of lowland undergrowth (the striking females have red backs and white underparts); it is hard to spot but a treat when found it. Like many fairywrens, is it often first located by its voice. The Broad-billed Fairywren
is another lowland skulker but it is particularly rare and local (no luck for me on this one) and it occurs in two disjunct populations that are distinctive. The taxa at Mt. Bosavi in southeastern New Guinea was only discovered to science in 1980 when netted by bird-bander R. W. Campbell. This bird was first named as a new species, Campbell's Fairywren
(Schodde & Weatherly 1983); Richard Weatherly's painting (in Schodde 1982) of a pair
working around the base of a mushroom-laden jungle tree is one of my favorite compositions (a portion of this
is shown at
; a photo doesn't really do justice to the art). In the late 1980s, I was at the American Museum of Natural History in New York doing research for my 'Cookilaria' petrel paper on a Chapman grant, and happened to visit the office of Mary Lecroy. She had on her desk a series of
and was comparing each laboriously. She told me that she was coming to the conclusion that these taxa were best handled as subspecies of Broad-billed Fairywren. Ms. Lecroy is one of the primary ornithologists working on New Guinea birds; her conclusion on this topic has been followed by the majority of texts (e.g., Beehler et al. 1986, Coates 1990, Clements 1991) but not by all (e.g., Sibley & Monroe 1990). I still recall being struck by the differences -- rather than the similarities -- of Campbell's Fairywren, and it will not surprise me to find it again split as a separate species in the future. Now to just see one!
: The dominant male
was part of a small flock at Lamington Nat'l Park, Queensland, in Nov 1983. The photo of two male
was taken by Trevor Quested at Mitchell Park, Cattai NSW during October, 1999. Trevor Quested also photographed the singing
that was near Gluepot Bird Reserve, South Australia, 25 Sep 2000. The
Campbell's (Broad-billed) Fairywren
M. (grayi) campbelli
is a part of a Richard Weatherly painting from Schodde (1982); the cover of that great book is shown below.
Top photo and book art photos © 2000 D. Roberson. Variegated Fairywren & Striated Grasswren © 2000 T. Quested, used with permission; all rights reserved.
Family book: Rating
Schodde, Richard. 1982. The Fairy-Wrens: A Monograph of the Maluridae. Illustrated by Richard Weatherly. Lansdowne Editions, Melbourne, Australia.
In my humble opinion this is the greatest "family book" ever published. Now out-of-print and difficult to locate (but still available in the fine used book trade), it includes virtually everything I desire in this genre. It is not very thick but the format is oversize (11 X 14") which permits reproduction of absolutely gorgeous full-page paintings for each species by Richard Weatherly. Mostly pairs are shown (thus sexual dimorphism is well illustrated) but occasional the view is of a family group or a lone bird. Behavior is often highlighted -- I just adore the bathing White-winged Fairywren (
) "in small pool on Dirk Hartog Island, Western Australia." That quote is from the caption for the art -- each painting illustrates some specific native habitat; one feels that "you are there" watching that very bird. The artist's line sketches are liberally scattered throughout the text, further illustrating habitat, ecology, and behavior. Just incredible art! Let field guides do field guide art -- a family book should engage the reader rather than present yet another dreary set of static field guide plates and lengthy, unreadable details of plumage written from long-dead specimens.
I know there is a new family book (Rowley & Russell 1997) in the solid Oxford Univ. Press series. If it is like others in that series, it is likely very good. The senior author, Ian Rowley, is one of the top world experts on fairywrens. I have not seen this new book. Its smaller format (a shorter but thicker book) will mean the art cannot compare with Weatherly's collection, but I would expect the text to be excellent. In addition, while the
Handbook of the Birds of the World
has not yet reached this group, the Australian literature that includes this family is reasonably extensive. Frith (1979) has very nice photos of Australian malurids as does Coates (1990) for New Guinea species.
As much as I could go on and on about the full-page & full habitat paintings, the text is equal to the art. Written by an expert on the Maluridae, it has all the details of plumages, voice and distribution (on maps within the species' text -- not somewhere else in the book) that one expects, but all are written in a breezy, engaging tone and, although including information at the state-of-the-science in 1982, structured with words that a lay person can understand. The text is full of information about behavior, breeding, displays and subspecies. And, best of all, each species account begins with the story of this bird's discovery to science. What a joy to read! And the introduction is full of stories and a fine overview of the family. Great art, great writing, authoritative information! It doesn't get any better than this.
Beehler, B. M., T. K. Pratt, and D. A. Zimmerman. 1986. Birds of New Guinea. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.
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Clements, J. F. 1991. Birds of the World: A Checklist. 4th ed. Ibis Publ., Vista, CA.
Coates, B. J. 1990. The Birds of Papua New Guinea. Part II. Dove Publ., Ltd., Alderley, Australia.
Frith, H. J., consulting ed. 1979. The Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds. 2d revised ed. Reader's Digest Services, Ltd., Sydney.
Rowley, I. 1965. The life history of the Superb Blue Wren
. Emu 64: 251-297.
Rowley, I., and E. Russell. 1997. Fairy-Wrens and Grasswrens: Maluridae. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.
Schodde, R., and I. J. Mason. 1999. The Directory of Australian Birds, Passerines. CSIRO Publishing.
Schodde, R., and R. G. Weatherly. 1983. Contributions to Papuasian ornithology, 8: Campbell's Fairy-wren (
), a new species from New Guinea. Emu 82: 308-309.
Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of the Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.
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