AppearanceThe splendid fairywren is a small, long-tailed bird 14 cm long. Exhibiting a high degree of sexual dimorphism, the breeding male is distinctive with a bright blue forehead and ear coverts, a violet throat and deeper rich blue back wings, chest and tail with a black bill, eye band and chest band. The blue breeding plumage of the male is often referred to as nuptial plumage. The non-breeding male is brown with blue in the wings and a bluish tail. The female resembles the non-breeding male but has a chestnut bill and eye-patch. Immature males will moult into breeding plumage the first breeding season after hatching, though this may be incomplete with residual brownish plumage and may take another year or two to perfect. Both sexes moult in autumn after breeding, with males assuming an eclipse non-breeding plumage. They will moult again into nuptial plumage in winter or spring. Some older males have remained blue all year, moulting directly from one year's nuptial plumage to the next. Breeding males' blue plumage, particularly the ear-coverts, is highly iridescent due to the flattened and twisted surface of the barbules. The blue plumage also reflects ultraviolet light strongly, and so may be even more prominent to other fairywrens, whose colour vision extends into this part of the spectrum. The call is described as a gushing reel; this is harsher and louder than other fairywrens and varies from individual to individual. A soft single ''trrt'' serves as a contact call within a foraging group, while the alarm call is a ''tsit''. Cuckoos and other intruders may be greeted with a threat posture and churring threat. Females emit a ''purr'' while brooding.
NamingCurrent taxonomy recognises four subspecies: ''M. s. splendens'' in Western Australia, ''M. s. musgravei'' in central Australia , ''M. s. melanotus'' in inland eastern Australia and ''M. s. emmottorum'' in southwestern Queensland. Initially, the three were considered separate species as they were described far from their borders with other subspecies. However, as the interior of Australia was explored, it became apparent there were areas of hybridisation where subspecies overlapped. Thus in 1975, the first three forms below were reclassified as subspecies of ''Malurus splendens.
⤷ ''M. s. splendens'', known as the splendid- or banded fairywren, is found in much of central and southern Western Australia. This was the original form named by Quoy and Gaimard in 1830.
⤷ ''M. s. melanotus'', known as the black-backed fairywren, was described by John Gould in 1841 as a separate species. It is found in the mallee country of South Australia through western Victoria, western New South Wales and into south western Queensland. It differs from the nominate subspecies in having a black back and whitish lower belly.
⤷ ''M. s. musgravei'' was described in 1922 by amateur ornithologist Gregory Mathews as a separate species from the Lake Eyre Basin in central Australia. It is found in mulga and mallee country across much of South Australia and the southern Northern Territory. It has lighter blue or turquoise upperparts than the splendid fairywren, as well as a black rump. This is largely synonymous with what was known as ''M. callainus'' or the turquoise fairywren which had been collected by ornithologist Samuel White and named by John Gould in 1867. The original collection bearing the name ''callainus'' was deemed a hybrid between what is now called ''musgravei'' and ''melanotus'', and hence ''musgravei'' was resurrected as the name for the turquoise fairywren.
⤷ ''M. s. emmottorum'' was described from southwestern Queensland and given subspecific status in the 1999 review by Schodde and Mason. It was named after Angus Emmott, a farmer and amateur biologist in western Queensland.
DistributionThe splendid fairywren is widely distributed in the arid and semi-arid zones of Australia. Habitat is typically dry and shrubby; mulga and mallee in drier parts of the country and forested areas in the southwest. The western subspecies ''splendens'' and eastern black-backed fairywren are largely sedentary, although the turquoise fairywren is thought to be partially nomadic. Unlike the eastern superb fairywren, the splendid fairywren has not adapted well to human occupation of the landscape and has disappeared from some urbanised areas. Forestry plantations of pine and eucalypts are also unsuitable as they lack undergrowth.
BehaviorLike all fairywrens, the splendid fairywren is an active and restless feeder, particularly on open ground near shelter, but also through the lower foliage. Movement is a series of jaunty hops and bounces, with its balance assisted by a proportionally large tail, which is usually held upright and rarely still. The short, rounded wings provide good initial lift and are useful for short flights, though not for extended jaunts. However, splendid fairywrens are stronger fliers than most other fairywrens. During spring and summer, birds are active in bursts through the day and accompany their foraging with song. Insects are numerous and easy to catch, which allows the birds to rest between forays. The group often shelters and rests together during the heat of the day. Food is harder to find during winter and they are required to spend the day foraging continuously.
Groups of two to eight splendid fairywrens remain in their territory and defend it year-round. Territories average 4.4 ha in woodland-heath areas; size decreases with increasing density of vegetation and increases with the number of males in the group. The group consists of a socially monogamous pair with one or more male or female helper birds that were hatched in the territory, though they may not necessarily be the offspring of the main pair. Splendid fairywrens are sexually promiscuous, each partner mating with other individuals and even assisting in raising the young from such trysts. Over a third of offspring are the result of an 'extramarital' mating. Helper birds assist in defending the territory and feeding and rearing the young. Birds in a group roost side-by-side in dense cover as well as engaging in mutual preening.
Major nest predators include Australian magpies , butcherbirds , laughing kookaburra , currawongs , crows and ravens , shrike-thrushes as well as introduced mammals such as the red fox , cat and black rat . Like other species of fairy wrens, splendid fairywrens may use a 'rodent-run' display to distract predators from nests with young birds. While doing this, the head, neck and tail of the bird are lowered, the wings are held out and the feathers are fluffed as the bird runs rapidly and voices a continuous alarm call.
HabitatThe splendid fairywren is widely distributed in the arid and semi-arid zones of Australia. Habitat is typically dry and shrubby; mulga and mallee in drier parts of the country and forested areas in the southwest. The western subspecies ''splendens'' and eastern black-backed fairywren are largely sedentary, although the turquoise fairywren is thought to be partially nomadic. Unlike the eastern superb fairywren, the splendid fairywren has not adapted well to human occupation of the landscape and has disappeared from some urbanised areas. Forestry plantations of pine and eucalypts are also unsuitable as they lack undergrowth.
ReproductionBreeding occurs from late August through to January, though heavy rain in August may delay this. The nest is built by the female; it is a round or domed structure made of loosely woven grasses and spider webs, with an entrance in one side close to the ground and well-concealed in thick and often thorny vegetation, such as ''Acacia pulchella'' or a species of ''Hakea''. One or two broods may be laid during the breeding season. A clutch of two to four dull white eggs with reddish-brown splotches and spots, measuring 12 × 16 mm , are laid. Incubation takes about two weeks. The female incubates the eggs for 14 or 15 days; after hatching, nestlings are fed and their fecal sacs removed by all group members for 10–13 days, by which time they are fledged. Young birds remain in the family group as helpers for a year or more before moving to another group, usually an adjacent one, or assuming a dominant position in the original group. In this role they feed and care for subsequent broods.
Splendid fairywrens also commonly play host to the brood parasite Horsfield's bronze cuckoo , with the shining bronze cuckoo also recorded.
FoodThe splendid fairywren is predominantly insectivorous; its diet includes a wide range of small creatures, mostly arthropods such as ants, grasshoppers, crickets, spiders and bugs. This is supplemented by small quantities of seeds, flowers, and fruit. They mostly forage on the ground or in shrubs that are less than two metres above the ground; this has been termed 'hop-searching'. Unusually for fairywrens, they may also occasionally forage in the canopy of flowering gums. Birds tend to stick fairly close to cover and forage in groups as this foraging practice does render them vulnerable to a range of predators. Food can be scarce in winter and ants are an important 'last resort' option, constituting a much higher proportion of the diet. Adult fairywrens feed their young a different diet, conveying larger items such as caterpillars and grasshoppers to nestlings.
EvolutionIn his 1982 monograph, ornithologist Richard Schodde proposed a southern origin for the common ancestor of the superb and splendid fairywrens. At some time in the past it was split into southwestern and southeastern enclaves. As the southwest was dryer than the southeast, once conditions were more favourable, the splendid forms were more able to spread into inland areas. These split into at least three enclaves which subsequently evolved in isolation in the following drier glacial periods until the current more favourable climate saw them expand once again and interbreed where they overlap. This suggests the original split was only very recent as the forms had insufficient time to speciate. Further molecular studies may result in this hypothesis being modified.
CulturalThe bird was intended to be illustrated on an Australia Post 45c pre-stamped envelope released on 12 August 1999; however, a superb fairywren was mistakenly illustrated instead.
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