Maluridae – Australasian Wrens

Variegated Fairy-wren Malurus lamberti ©Ian Montgomery Website

The Maluridae are a family of small, insectivorous passerine birds endemic to Australia and New Guinea. Commonly known as wrens, they are unrelated to the true wrens of the Northern Hemisphere. The family includes 15 species of fairywren, 3 emu-wrens, and 11 grass wrens.

They are small birds, inhabiting a wide range of environments, from rainforest to desert, although most species inhabit grassland or scrub. The grasswrens are well camouflaged with black and brown patterns, but other species often have brilliantly coloured plumage, especially in the males.

They are insectivorous, typically foraging in underbrush. They build domed nests in areas of dense vegetation, and it is not unusual for the young to remain in the nest and assist in raising chicks from later clutches.

Fairywrens are notable for several peculiar behavioural characteristics. They are socially monogamous and sexually promiscuous, meaning that although they form pairs between one male and one female, each partner will mate with other individuals and even assist in raising the young from such pairings. Males of several species pluck petals of conspicuous colours and display them to females, a behaviour yet to be explained.

The songs of fairywrens is pleasant and complex, and at least two species (superb and splendid), in addition to the alarm calls common to most small birds, have another vocalisation used when confronted by predators. This ‘Type II Vocalisation’, is song-like and used when confronted by calling butcherbirds, and sometimes other predatory birds. Its purpose is not yet understood; it is certainly not a warning call.

Species List

According to the IOC, there are just 29 species in this family; they are:

Wallace’s Fairywren Sipodotus wallacii

Broad-billed Fairywren Malurus grayi
Campbell’s Fairywren Malurus campbelli
Emperor Fairywren Malurus cyanocephalus
Lovely Fairywren Malurus amabilis
Variegated Fairywren Malurus lamberti
Blue-breasted Fairywren Malurus pulcherrimus
Red-winged Fairywren Malurus elegans
Superb Fairywren Malurus cyaneus
Splendid Fairywren Malurus splendens
Purple-crowned Fairywren Malurus coronatus
White-shouldered Fairywren Malurus alboscapulatus
Red-backed Fairywren Malurus melanocephalus
White-winged Fairywren Malurus leucopterus

Orange-crowned Fairywren Clytomyias insignis

Southern Emu-wren Stipiturus malachurus
Mallee Emu-wren Stipiturus mallee
Rufous-crowned Emu-wren Stipiturus ruficeps

Grey Grasswren Amytornis barbatus
Black Grasswren Amytornis housei
White-throated Grasswren Amytornis woodwardi
Carpentarian Grasswren Amytornis dorotheae
Short-tailed Grasswren Amytornis merrotsyi
Striated Grasswren Amytornis striatus
Eyrean Grasswren Amytornis goyderi
Western Grasswren Amytornis textilis
Thick-billed Grasswren Amytornis textilis
Dusky Grasswren Amytornis purnelli
Kalkadoon Grasswren Amytornis ballarae

Species Links
  • Grey Grasswren Amytornis barbatus

    HBW Species Account
    Taxonomy: Amytornis barbatus Favaloro and McEvey, 1968, Teurika, Bulloo River, north-west New South Wales, Australia. Protein evidence indicates that this species stands apart genetically from other grasswrens; interpreted as being an older form. Two subspecies recognized.
  • Grey Grasswren Amytornis barbatus

    IUCN Species Status
    The global population size has not been quantified, but the species is reported to be rare in Queensland and South Australia and vulnerable in New South Wales (Higgins et al. 2001). The nominate barbatus may number c.15,000 individuals.
  • Grey Grasswren Amytornis barbatus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • Grey Grasswren Amytornis barbatus

    Species Account
    The grey grasswren (Amytornis barbatus) is a passerine bird of the family Maluridae native to inland Australia. It is a rarely seen elusive bird that was first sighted in 1921, but not taxonomically described until 1968.
  • Lovely Fairy-wren Malurus amabilis

    Species Account
    Image + Lovely Fairy-wrens are co-operative breeders. Genetic studies of superb and splendid fairy-wrens have revealed the shocking fact that a high proportion of the young are not dad`s. It appears that, from time to time, mum entertains the neighbouring males, mating with up to six different ones in addition to her regular partner…
  • Lovely Fairy-wren Malurus amabilis

    HBW Species Account
    Malurus amabilis Gould, 1852, Cape York, northern Queensland, Australia. Part of the “chestnut-shouldered group”, which includes also M. lamberti, M. pulcherrimus and M. elegans. Forms a superspecies with M. lamberti; sometimes considered conspecific, mainly on account of blue female plumage of present species and of races dulcis and rogersi of latter, but protein data support treatment as separate species. Birds from SE of range described as race barroni, but considered inseparable from populations elsewhere. Monotypic.
  • Lovely Fairy-wren Malurus amabilis

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • Lovely Fairy-wren Malurus amabilis

    Species Account
    The lovely fairywren (Malurus amabilis) is a species of bird in the Maluridae family. It is endemic to northeastern Australia. Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical dry forests and subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests.
  • Mallee Emu-wren Stipiturus mallee

    Species Account
    The Mallee Emu-wren (Stipiturus mallee) is a bird species in the family Maluridae. It is endemic to Australia. Its natural habitat is temperate grassland. It is threatened by habitat loss.
  • Mallee Emu-wren Stipiturus mallee

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • Mallee Emu-wren Stipiturus mallee

    IUCN Species Status
    13-14.5 cm. Tiny-bodied, streaked wren with brown, filamentous tail of 8-9.5 cm. Grey-brown upperparts, coarsely streaked darker. Rufous cap. Orange-buff below in both sexes. Male has sky-blue face and bib.
  • Mallee Emu-wren Stipiturus mallee

    HBW Species Account
    Taxonomy: Stipiturus mallee A. J. Campbell, 1908, Mallee district = Hopetoun district, west Victoria, Australia. Forms a superspecies with S. malachurus and S. ruficeps; has been treated as conspecific with former. Often considered conspecific with S. ruficeps, but mitochondrial DNA evidence supports maintenance of the two as distinct species. Monotypic.
  • Red-backed Fairy-wren Malurus melanocephalus

    BirdLife Species Account
    While many of Australia’s fairy-wrens feature various shades of blue in their plumage, the Red-backed Fairy-wren is equally as striking, but with an eye-catching patch of red feathers on its back and rump, contrasting with the rest of the plumage, which is glossy black. They are commonly seen in grassy areas of northern and eastern Australia.
  • Red-backed Fairy-wren Malurus melanocephalus

    Species Account
    This is the smallest of the fairy-wrens, with the male in breeding plumage inmistakable; glossy black with a scarlet saddle, black bill and shortish tail with a squared tip. Adult non-breeding males and immature birds are very similar to the females which are plain warm-brown with a pinkish-brown bill, though males have a black bill. The tail of the females is longer and more pointed. These wrens have no blue in their plumage at all. They are usually in small family groups with mainly brownish birds.
  • Red-backed Fairy-wren Malurus melanocephalus

    HBW Species Account
    Maps, photos etc
  • Red-backed Fairy-wren Malurus melanocephalus

    IUCN Species Status
    This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion.
  • Red-backed Fairy-wren Malurus melanocephalus

    Image
    Image + Brief Account…
  • Red-backed Fairy-wren Malurus melanocephalus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • Red-backed Fairy-wren Malurus melanocephalus

    Species Account
    The red-backed fairywren (Malurus melanocephalus) is a species of passerine bird in the family Maluridae. It is endemic to Australia and can be found near rivers and coastal areas along the northern and eastern coastlines from the Kimberley in the northwest to the Hunter Region in New South Wales.
  • Variegated Fairy-wren Malurus lamberti

    Species Account
    The breeding male Variegated Fairy-wren is brightly coloured. The crown and sides of the head are blue, and the shoulder patch is a rich chestnut. The depth and variety of colours in the male varies among the four subspecies, distributed across the Australian mainland. Non-breeding males, females and young birds are brownish grey. Females
  • Variegated Fairy-wren Malurus lamberti

    HBW Species Account
    Taxonomy: Malurus lamberti Vigors and Horsfield, 1827, no locality = Sydney area, New South Wales, Australia. Part of the “chestnut-shouldered group”, which includes also M. amabilis, M. pulcherrimus and M. elegans. Forms a superspecies with M. amabilis; sometimes considered conspecific, mainly on account of blue female plumage of latter species and of races dulcis and rogersi, but protein data support treatment as separate species. Geographical variation in colours of male and female plumage considerable, and races were at one time regarded as representing four separate species, with many additional races described. Race assimilis intergrades with both dulcis and rogersi, and also, in E, with coastal nominate race. Five subspecies currently recognized.
  • Variegated Fairy-wren Malurus lamberti

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • Variegated Fairy-wren Malurus lamberti

    Species Account
    The variegated fairywren (Malurus lamberti) is a fairywren that lives in diverse habitats across most of Australia. Four subspecies are recognised.
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 29

Useful Reading
  • Fairy-Wrens and Grasswrens

    | By Ian Rowley & Eleanor Russell [Illustrated by Peter Marsack] OUP 1997 ISBN: 9780198546900 Buy this book from NHBS.com
Other Links
  • Red-backed Fairy-wren Research in Australia

    Website
    Over a century ago, Charles Darwin provided a robust explanation for behavioral and morphological differences between the sexes, the theory of sexual selection…

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