The Fairywren Project: Teaming up with eBirders to capture variation in Australia’s fairywrens

By Allison Johnson and Joseph Welklin August 5, 2018
The Fairywren Project wants your observations

Splendid Fairywren, Alice Sprints, NT (Mat Gilfedder)

Your eBird fairywren sightings will contribute to better understanding how differences in environmental conditions drive variation in these charismatic birds. Researchers Joseph Welklin (Cornell University), and Allison Johnson (University of Nebraska), are teaming up with eBird Australia citizen scientists to ask big questions about fairywrens across the Australian continent. The Fairywren Project wants your observations on the onset of breeding plumage and social behaviour–for all nine species of Australian fairywrens.

White-winged Fairywren, Inglewood, QLD (Mat Gilfedder)

Fairywrens are well known for their brilliantly-coloured plumages, cooperative breeding, complex social structures, and surprisingly high rates of infidelity. All fairywrens begin their lives in dull brown or light blue, female-like, plumages, with males of each species ultimately transforming into bright and dazzling dark blue, purple, red, and black plumages, once the breeding season rolls around. For males of some fairywren species, this brightly-coloured breeding (also known as “nuptial”) plumage may not develop in their first, second, or even their third breeding season—a phenomenon known to biologists as delayed plumage maturation. Male White-winged Fairywrens are arguably one of the most dramatically-coloured of the Australian fairywrens, and they moult into breeding plumages only when they are 3 or 4 years old.

Red-backed Fairywren, Oxley Creek Common, QLD (Mat Gilfedder)

As all birders know, Australia is ecologically diverse, with habitats ranging from the arid interior to the lush forests along many of the coastlines. Most species of fairywrens occupy extensive ranges, and many of the species’ ranges extend across dramatic environmental variation. Local ecological variation may help explain differences found within and across species. Different habitats may force variation in social group structure and size–such as when young males either stay in the group they were born into (their natal group), or disperse and establish their own territories–which may further impact onset of breeding plumage.

Fairywrens have been the focus of many highly informative research projects, successfully examining topics such as social cooperation and communication, extra-pair paternity (reproductively promiscuous mating behavior among socially monogamous birds), and brood parasitism (when birds are hatched and reared by birds of a different species). The Fairywren Project seeks sightings from eBirders around Australia for bridging on-going fairywren research across Australia’s broad and changing landscape.

Contribute to the Fairywren Project by submitting your sightings to eBird Australia as you normally do, but include specific extra observation details in the notes for each species of fairywren you see. For each list you make, include in the species notes the number of brightly-coloured males (b), dully-coloured males (d), intermediate-coloured (moulting) males (i), females (f), juveniles (j), and unknown gender dully-coloured fairywrens (u), such as in this example list.

Take your participation a step further by adding in breeding information through eBird’s Breeding Codes and Behavior Codes. If you are interested in participating at the advanced level, spend some time with the fairywrens you see to distinguish and estimate social group sizes, and the distribution of plumage types of the birds within them, such as in this example list.

Variegated Fairywren, Sandy Camp Road Wetlands, QLD (Mat Gilfedder)

Visit the Fairywren Project website for full instructions, more information on the questions being addressed by the observations you contribute, and detailed plumage and distribution descriptions and illustrations for each of the Australian fairywren species.