Bird of the month

Red-backed Fairy-wren

Tuesday, 29 November 2022

  • Estimated reading time 3min

Bird of the month: Red-backed Fairy-wren

Red-backed Fairy-wren
The male Red-backed Fairy-wren. Photographed by: Andrew Silcocks

The Red-backed Fairy-wren is a bird that, once seen, is seldom forgotten. With an inky black head and body contrasting with a vivid scarlet or flame-coloured patch that extends from the back of the bird’s neck almost to its rump, male Red-backed Fairy-wrens are a spectacular sight. However, like most fairy-wrens, the female is much drabber, being plain brown.

Despite their dowdy appearance, females are highly sought after by breeding males, which perform elaborate courtship rituals. The most endearing of these is to present his belle with a petal from a red flower, to emphasise his own red plumage. Another charming courtship display is the ‘Seahorse Flight’, where the male flies about with his head held upwards and his body held vertically, with his tail pointing downwards, so that he vaguely resembles a seahorse.

Despite their vivid colouration, these diminutive birds are often difficult to see, as they usually inhabit dense vegetation, especially long grass, shrubs and dense riparian vegetation, often growing beneath trees in a tropical woodland, and they’re more often heard than seen.

Red-backed Fairy-wren
A pair of female Red-backed Fairy-wrens. Photographed by: Andrew Silcocks

They usually choose tussocks of grass to build their dome-shaped nests in, where they lay up to four spotted and blotched eggs. The female incubates them for nearly a fortnight, and if the nest is approached, she may perform a scuttling ‘rodent-run distraction display’. The chicks remain in a family group after the young have fledged. However, fairy-wrens are renowned for their promiscuousness, so a male in colourful breeding plumage attending ‘his’ offspring may not really be their father…

If you’d like to find out where you can see a Red-backed Fairy-wren pretending to be a seahorse or a rodent, check out BirdLife Australia’s Birdata website.