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.

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

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: 0198546904 Buy this book from
Other Links
  • Red-backed Fairy-wren Research in Australia

    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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