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Bird in the Spotlight: Red-backed Fairywren

6 February, 2024

By Alexander Trifunovic

Red-backed Fairywrens. Photo by Summerdrought.

A bouncy, charismatic songbird, the Red-backed Fairywren (Malurus melanocephalus) is endemic to the tropical and subtropical savannas of northern and eastern Australia. These tiny puffballs weigh between 6.3 and 8.7 grams, only about as much as a pencil! Like other fairywrens, they are very round with a long tail held upright as they hop and flutter while gleaning for arthropods in low brush. Adult males are jet black with a bright crimson back, and females and immature males are sandy brown to blend into the environment. There has been significant behavioral research on fairywren breeding behavior. Males court the ladies with a combination of tactics, including a “puffback display” where they lift the red feathers on their back and hop around frantically, and a “petal display” where they present brightly colored red or pink flower petals, fruits, or beetles. Red-backed Fariywrens form monogamous pairs, but extra-pair mating is common and broods are often sired by multiple males. This scandalous breeding system appears to decrease inbreeding and increase an individual male’s fitness, making it evolutionarily beneficial for the species as a whole. Nests are tended to by the monogamous pair and usually one or more helper males, non-dispersing males from the previous breeding season. After the breeding season, families merge into loose foraging flocks. This species is currently of little conservation concern as it tolerates human development and readily breeds in gardens and along roads. However, studies show Red-backed Fairywrens respond negatively to wildfire making them susceptible to warmer temperatures and severe weather events.  

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