Australian Fairy-Wrens: Maluridae

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These birds range in length from 5.5 to 8.6 inches (14 to 22 centimeters) and weigh from 0.27 to 1.2 ounces (7.6 to 34.1 grams). Grasswrens are colored brown and tan with black and white markings. Only faint shades mark the differences between the sexes in grasswrens. Female undersides tend to be more russet, reddish, in color than male. Breeding male fairywrens display colors of bright blues, violets, purples, and russets. Some have cheek patches of bright turquoise—these cheek patches can be blown out to form a face fan during territorial contests or courting displays. Emu-wrens have long tails that are filament-like, or thread-like.


Fairy-wrens can be found throughout Australia and New Guinea. Some species are found only in a limited area, while others are distributed over the entire continent. Emu-wrens and grasswrens only inhabit Australia. Fairy-wrens are found in New Guinea as well as Australia.


The various species of Australian fairy-wrens can be found in different habitats. Grasswrens find homes in grasslands of the dry interior lands of the continent with a very limited geographic distribution. Emu-wrens inhabit many different kinds of environments such as swampland, and the thickets of the southern Australian plains along the coastal belts. Others inhabit the arid, dry, interior. Fairy-wrens also live in many different kinds of habitats, from tropical grasslands to wet forests and woodlands, and the semi-arid interior. Yet other species have adapted to humans and inhabit parks and suburban gardens.


Australian fairy-wrens are omnivores, eating both plants and animals. They forage, search for food, on the ground for wide range of invertebrates, animals with backbones and also harvest foliage, twigs, and bark, and sometimes catch flying insects from the air. Some species are more specific in their foraging, as in the case of the purple-crowned fairy-wren that forages in pandanus plants along the edges of tropical streams, rivers, and ponds.


Most members of the Australian fairy-wrens live in family groups. They are usually territorial and sedentary, do not migrate. They communicate with other group members with a wide variety of melodious calls. They keep busy foraging for food, climbing through the thick undergrowth, and hopping over open areas of ground with their tails cocked.

Most species of the family are cooperative breeders, meaning that they have help with the care of the young from the offspring of previous years. The adults studied have a high rate of survival, and breed extensively. Their nests are domed balls of woven grass with side entrances. Clutches have two to four red-spotted, white eggs. The female usually incubates the eggs for a period of ten to fourteen days. Young birds are fed for four to six weeks.

A team of scientists from Cambridge University and Bristol University, England, led by a professor from the Australian National University, reported in 2003 that superb Australian fairy-wrens have found a way to combat predatory habits of cuckoos—in this case, the Australian Horsfield's bronze-cuckoo. The cuckoo kills any host young by kicking them out of their nest, and then lays an egg that resembles the fairywren's egg, and so the superb Australian fairy-wren does not remove the egg. Within forty-eight hours of hatching, the cuckoo kicks out the host's chick from the nest. But the host fairy-wrens, at least approximately 40 percent of those studied, abandoned the nest two days later, and the cuckoo chick starves to death while the fairy-wrens nest again.


There is no specific connection to humans other than through observation that has named the family as among the most beautiful of birds. They continue to be studied as a "recently" discovered separate family, only identified in 1975. DNA research in the late 1990s finally discovered their distinct identity.


Australian fairy-wrens are not currently threatened, though overgrazing and the changes in the land that come from agriculture and timber production do provide a potential threat.


Physical characteristics: Splendid fairy-wrens are 5.5 inches (14 centimeters) in length. The male and female differ in weight, with the male weighing about 0.28 to 0.39 ounces (7.9 to 11.1 grams), and the female weighing about 0.27 to 0.36 ounces (7.6 to 10.2 grams). While in breeding plumage the male is a very bright, deep blue with turquoise cheek patches and crown, black breast, face, and back markings. Females, nonbreeding males, and juveniles are drab olive on top with blue tails and wings.

Geographic range: Splendid fairy-wren populations are scattered throughout Australia, including the western coastal areas, the interior, and some in the east.

Habitat: Splendid fairy-wrens mostly inhabit the drier acacia (uh-KAY-shah) woodlands and scrublands.

Diet: Splendid fairy-wrens are primarily carnivores, meat-eaters, foraging on the ground for insects such as ants, grasshoppers, spiders, and insect larvae (LAR-vee), but they also eat foliage up to canopy height. They forage for food doing a hop-search, pouncing on their prey, and may catch flying insects in the air.

Behavior and reproduction: Splendid fairy-wrens are stronger fliers than other fairy-wrens, and also forage in a variety of ways. The bird is a territorial breeder, and is usually found in small groups. Its voice is a loud series of trills.

Splendid fairy-wrens are promiscuous breeders, meaning both males and females mate with a number of other birds. The male is the father of less than half of the offspring in his territory. Clutches have two to four, red-spotted white eggs. Females incubate the eggs for about two weeks, and fledging takes place in ten to thirteen days.

Splendid fairy-wrens and people: No known significance to humans, other than extensive research and observation by scientists.

Conservation status: Splendid fairy-wrens are not threatened, but they may be threatened in the future by loss of habitat for agriculture and overgrazing. ∎


Physical characteristics: Striated grasswrens average 5.7 to 6.9 inches (14.5 to 17.5 centimeters) in length. The male weighs between 0.56 and 0.78 ounces (16 and 22 grams). Both males and females are similar in appearance, with russet brown and paler shades of brown and tan on the upperparts and with buff-whitish undersides. They also have russet, reddish, splashes on the sides and a bill that has black whisker marks. The female has chestnut flakes.

Geographic range: Striated grasswrens have populations scattered across Australia, including areas from New South Wales to Western Australia, with a small central area of Queensland for one of its subspecies.

Habitat: Striated grasswrens can be found on sand plains and rocky hills, and throughout the shrubby vegetation of the dry interior land.

Diet: Striated grasswren forage for food on the ground, eating insects, particularly ants and beetles, and seeds. They also have been observed eating cactus flowers and foraging at midnight.

Behavior and reproduction: By nature, the striated grasswren is secretive in its behavior. The birds are poor fliers, hopping instead over open ground with their tails cocked, or with it horizontal when they are traveling through vegetation that is very thick. Striated grasswrens can be found alone, or in small family groups. Their song is melodious with trills and whistles.

Due to the difficulty of observing this bird, their breeding habits have been difficult to define. A clutch has two or three red-spotted, white eggs. Cooperative breeding or help with the nest has not been observed.

Striated grasswrens and people: There is no special significance between striated grasswrens and people. Since this bird is often distributed in areas that can be difficult to travel into, the bird can be difficult to observe.

Conservation status: By the early twenty-first century the striated grasswren had been listed by the New South Wales National Park as Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened. Their population and distribution has been severely reduced due destruction of favorable habitat by overgrazing, the introduction of herbivores, as well as predatory cats and foxes, and extensive fires. ∎



Campbell, Brude, and, Lack, Elizabeth, eds. A Dictionary of Birds. Vermillion, SD: Buteo Books, 1985.

Fisher, James, and Roger Tory Peterson. The World of Birds. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964.

Lewis, Adrian, and Derek Pomeroy. A Bird Atlas of Kenya. Lisse, Netherlands: Swets and Zeitlinger, 1988.

Simpson, Ken, and Nicolas Day. The Birds of Australia, A Book of Identification. Dover, NH: Tanager Books, 1984.

Web sites:

Ehrlich , Paul R., David Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. "Birds, DNA, and Evolutionary Convergence." Stanford Alumni Organization.,_DNA.html (accessed on June 9, 2004).

"Fairywrens & Grasswrens." Monterey Bay. (accessed on June 9, 2004).

"Striated Grasswrens." Gluepot's Biological Treasures and Threatened Birds. (accessed on June 9, 2004).

"Striated Grasswrens." Michael Morcombe's Field Guide to Australian Birds. (accessed on June 9, 2004).

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Australian Fairy-Wrens: Maluridae

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Australian Fairy-Wrens: Maluridae