For many Australians, the ‘blue wren’ is their favourite native bird. When most people talk of blue wrens, however, they are usually referring to one of a number of male fairy-wren species in breeding plumage. The plainer, brown-looking females, immatures, and non-breeding male birds rarely get a look in.
One of the reasons is that brown wrens don’t have the same razzle-dazzle effect of their showy male counterparts. Not one of the species’ names makes reference to any features of the female birds—there are no purple crowns or red backs amongst the fairy-wren sisters and while they may indeed be superb and splendid birds in their own right, it is a fair bet that it was not the females that the early taxonomists had in mind!
Perhaps also, there is the issue of identification. With one or two notable exceptions, the female Australian fairy-wrens are quite difficult to distinguish in the field. Recently the Australian Birdlife ‘Photo Challenge’ featured a shot of a female fairy-wren from “somewhere in South Australia.” There was nothing deliberately tricky about the photo itself—it was a clear shot of a female Splendid Fairy-wren in typical plumage—yet of the many responses received on our website, more than 50 per cent got the ID wrong.
When I first saw the image, I did manage to correctly identify it, but only by a virtual coin toss between Splendid and Variegated Fairy-wrens. Growing up in southern Victoria, where only Superb Fairy-wrens occur, I never had much need to commit the subtleties of female fairy-wren identification to memory. The same is true for birders in Tasmania where Superb Fairy-wren is the sole representative of the fairy-wren clan.
Almost everywhere else in the country has at least two species living alongside each other, and someone living in Perth or Port Augusta could conceivably see five species of fairy-wren in a day! In some cases, even separating the gaudily coloured males of species such as Variegated and Blue-breasted Fairy-wrens can be challenging, so how to approach those females which tend to be variations on the theme of inconspicuous brown?
My preferred identification strategy when visiting an area that hosts more than one fairy-wren species has simply been to look for the brightly coloured male that accompanies the female bird! Of course, nature doesn’t always oblige so readily and it is amazing how often a male will remain hidden in the densest bush, always out of view, while the brown birds strut around shamelessly at your feet. To compound the degree of difficulty, most adult males moult back into a plain brown plumage outside of the breeding season.
With other groups of birds, the call can be instructive in helping to separate out similar species, but as Danny Rogers, who worked on the fairy-wrens in HANZAB and is currently preparing texts for the upcoming CSRIO field guide, points out, “Calls often fail to come to the rescue in this group—they all have a similar repertoire of fast reeling trilled songs, high contact calls, quiet contact calls and sharper alarm calls. There are subtle differences between species, but most are more easily detected with sonograms than the human ear.”
So how do you go about distinguishing the female fairy-wrens from one another?
The differences may at times be subtle, but there are a number of features that once you know to look for, will mean the identity of the bird in question will suddenly pop out right in front of you.