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Australian BirdLife magazine

50 Shades of Brown: Identifying female fairy-wrens

Tuesday, 30 May 2023

  • Estimated reading time 5min
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 nonbreeding male birds rarely get a look in.

This story originally ran in our June 2013 issue. To receive our Australian BirdLife magazine, become a member today.

Female Superb Fairy-wren by Jennifer Varela

One of the reasons is that brown wrens don’t have the same razzle-dazzle effect as 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-percent 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 fairywren 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?

Female Splendid Fairy-wren by Diana Andersen

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 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 CSIRO 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 what to look for, will mean the identity of the bird in question will suddenly pop out right in front of you.

Laying Down the Lores

If you’ve only got a split second to pick up ID features on a bashful fairywren, Danny Rogers recommends focusing on its face and bill. “Does it have reddish or dark lores and eye-ring, forming a kind of bandit mask? And is this marking darker, paler or about the same colour as the bill?” The lores are the area between the eye and the bill, and the colour combination of bill, lores and eye-ring is crucial for several species. Danny adds that tail and mantle colour are helpful too; if you can clock all of these you should be able to make a confident identification.

A Lighter Shade of Blue

Easiest of all the females to identify are those that exhibit some of the colourings of their masculine partners. Chief among these is the Lovely Fairy-wren of Far North Queensland, where the only brown to be seen is on the wings. The rest of the upper-body is indeed a lovely shade of blue. They are pretty distinctive wrens in any case, with an obvious white fringe to the bright-blue tail, and a much more arboreal nature—most other fairy-wrens spend a large proportion of their time foraging on the ground. While not as richly coloured as the Lovely Fairy-wren, the females of the escarpment-dwelling Kimberley and Arnhem Land races of Variegated Fairy-wren also have bluish heads and upperparts.

Female Lovely Fairy-wren by Jun Matsui

Another unmistakable species is Purple-crowned Fairy-wren. While the girls don’t sport the striking lilac crown, they do have a diagnostic bold rufous patch on the ear-coverts, contrasting obviously with the greyish crown. All these birds have quite restricted ranges and would not be easily confused with anything else with an overlapping distribution. It is with the remaining species that the real challenge lies.

Plain Janes

Female White-winged and Red-backed Fairy-wrens are the plainest of all, with no facial markings. Red-backed has brown upperparts, much the same as any other fairy-wren, whereas White-winged looks rather paler and greyer. While their ranges do overlap slightly, their choice of habitat is quite distinct and will usually keep them well separated. White-winged’s inhabit open, sparse habitats in more arid zones—harsh regions where you won’t see many other bird species.

Red-backed is usually found in tropical and subtropical areas with a grassy cover, mostly within a couple of hundred kilometres of the coast. If in doubt, the key to identifying females of these two species is the tail. Red-backed Fairy-wren is the only Australian species not to have any blue whatsoever in any plumage (even the females of the black-and-white race of White-winged Fairy-wren found only on a small number of islands off the Western Australian coast have a trace of blue on the tail). The brown tail of a lady Red-backed therefore contrasts with the bluish tone of a female White-winged Fairy-wren. The bill of a White-winged female is slimmer than that of the Red-backed Fairy-wren, and also a little paler. Whether this characteristic is particularly useful in the field is a bit questionable, but it could come in handy if a plain fairy-wren pokes only its head out of a bush on the edge of WA’s Eighty Mile Beach.

Female (left) and male (right) Red-backed Fairy-wrens by Heyn De Kock

Bandits

The five remaining species pose a far more tricky identification challenge, as they all sport a variation on the same theme—brown upperparts, whitish underparts, some degree of blue in the tail, and a distinct ‘bandit’ mask where the lores and eye-ring differ in colour from the rest of the plumage. The bill colour is different for many species but caution should be exercised in using this feature alone as the differences can be very subtle and dependent on the light conditions in which the birds are viewed.

So while a female Variegated Fairy-wren generally has a more orange-tan coloured bill than a Blue-breasted, which tends to be a richer, darker red, especially at the tip, this feature is not as reliable as comparing the relationship of the bill colour to the lores and eye-ring. The darker, chestnut lores of Variegated contrast strongly with its paler bill, whereas in Blue-breasted the lores are about the same colour as the bill. In female Superbs, the orange-red of the lores and eye-ring is concolourous with the bill, whereas, in the similar Splendid, the lores tend to be paler than Superb, almost a tan colour as opposed to orange, and not as richly coloured as the bill.

Red-winged is the odd one out. It’s the only female fairy-wren in its range with a black rather than a reddish bill. And it is the only fairy-wren in which rufous lores are not accompanied by a similarly coloured eye-ring. Unlike other fairy-wrens that might be encountered in southern WA, the mantle looks distinctly more rufous than the grey-tinged crown. The strength of the blue colouration in the tail varies from rather subtle in Superb Fairy-wren, to almost as vivid as the male in Splendid Fairy-wren. Of the females of the three ‘chestnut-shouldered species’, Variegated typically has a more bluish tail than Red-winged, which in turn is usually slightly less blue than Blue-breasted.

Red-winged Fairy-wren by Howard Loosemore

Total Eclipse of the Son

Confusing the picture is that out of breeding season, many male fairy-wrens go into a very female-like nonbreeding plumage, sometimes referred to as ‘eclipse’. It certainly throws uncertainty into the ID mix, and while describing the eclipse plumage of each species is beyond the remit of this article, there are a couple of general pointers that can help the fairy-wren spotter sort out what’s what. In many cases, brown males can be readily identified from females and immature birds by their black beaks. While female Red-winged, Purple-crowned and Lovely Fairy-wrens have blackish bills, only male Red-backed Fairy-wrens will revert back to a reddish or pale bill. In no species do male fairy-wrens develop reddish lores or ear patches in eclipse plumage.

The Splendid Fairy-wren makes things a little easier in that it retains substantial turquoise patches on the wings when in non-breeding plumage. The Superb Fairy-wren helpfully retains its navy-blue tail from breeding plumage. So the trick to identifying eclipse male fairy-wrens is to learn how to identify the females for the species, and then check the colouring of the bill and or the lores to determine the sex of the bird. The table on the following page should help you key out the females of the different species. Good luck!

This story originally ran in our June 2013 issue. To receive our Australian BirdLife magazine, become a member today.