James Whitmore & Other Animals: The Superb Fairy-Wren

31 October 2012

Spring is in the air in Melbourne. After winter, pink buds on the cherry trees burst forth with delicate blossoms. The air positively throbs with the perfume of flowers and the buzzing of birds and bees. One of the loveliest of the city’s residents is hopping about in gardens and parks in charming little families. They are superb fairy-wrens, and with the arrival of spring they begin their courtship.

The male fairy-wren is a gem of the animal kingdom. He has a fluorescent aqua crown and épaulettes on a face made with deep indigo like a queen in Priscilla. His tail is long and erect. Flamboyant, loud and glittery he can often be seen perched on car mirrors or at window ledges, staring at his own reflection. Sometimes he feels the reflection is a threat and he attacks to ward the intruder off, only to be met with a puzzling hard surface. It may be a case of beauté over brains. This is a territorial display to protect his brown female and his nest.

The superb fairy-wren mates for life. Every spring the male and female reaffirm their bond and prepare to raise a family. They are a model of virtue and the good ol’ Aussie family. However all is not what it seems in fairy0wren life. In fact the social relationships of these little birds make The Bold and the Beautiful look like Jane Austen.

It all starts at the time most birds would leave the nest. Male fairy-wrens are the thirty-somethings who never leave home. They hang around in their parents’ territory, continuing to live off the ‘rents. These groups–up to five of them–are often seen in parks and gardens, one brilliant male and what appears to be several dull females. However those ‘females’ are actually males in drag. There is only room, after all, for one queen in the spotlight. In return they are looked after and graciously help their parents raise more brothers and sisters.

The females are kicked out as soon as they are old enough, left to fend for themselves. They must find their own territory and a male, or die. Once a female has settled down with a male and her responsibilities are building the nest and keeping the eggs warm. If she has a group of males she is luckier. Every now and then the female lies back and thinks of England and deigns to mate with her partner. However, she is just keeping the peace.

Every morning, just before dawn when the dew is settling on the grass, the fairy-wren territories resonate with the glittery songs of the males. The females listen with discerning ears. During the night, when sly goings-on are heard but not seen, each female leaves her mate’s territory. She creeps through the undergrowth, crossing neighbour’s backyards until she arrives in the middle of another male’s home. She has been choosy. This male is the strongest and most glamorous of the neighbourhood. She has picked her timing too–it’s that time of the year and she’s ready to lay. Just as the sky is lightening she mates frantically with the male in teh bushes and then quickly and quietly returns to her own nest. There she lays the eggs that will be lovingly cared for by her mate and her family.

The males believe they are raising brothers and sisters, but in fact seventy-five per cent of all the nestlings are only half-related at best, and not at all in the case of her partner. The female can do this because of her helpers, the older sons that remain loyal to their parents. With her partner off preening himself and tilting at mirrors she finds some time to indulge in a little extramarital activity.

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