By Holly Sass, On the Perch Bird Park, Tathra NSW Australia
Splendid Fairy-wrens are an astonishing species of bird; they have lovely characters, songs and outstanding colour. As such, Splendid Fairy-wrens make a great addition to any aviary. I could spend hours watching them bob around the aviary collecting insects and going about their lives.
The breeding and family structure of Splendid Fairy-wrens is fascinating. They are very social birds, often seen huddled up on a branch preening one another. Family groups will cooperatively raise the young. In the wild the family group consists of a breeding pair, and then ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ help raise the young. This allows the female to lay and incubate another clutch once the young have fledged. However, in captivity this cooperative breeding system is not as commonly replicated, but there are some cases of Splendids cooperatively breeding in captivity.
While Splendid Fairy-wrens live in large family groups in the wild, only a pair can be housed in a single aviary in captivity. Despite being such a small delicate stunning bird they can be very aggressive. Both males and females can become very territorial of their aviary, not tolerating other birds they see as a threat or their own young who are kept in the aviary for too long after becoming independent. In the wild unwelcome birds move along and find a new family group to join. In captivity there is nowhere for the unwelcome birds to go, and hence they cannot escape the aggressive pair which can result in death.
Many aviculturists will put a pair of fairy-wrens into an aviary with a variety of finch species. While Splendids get along fine with many species of finch, never house finches with blue plumage and Splendid Fairy-wrens together. The Splendids will see these birds as a threat and potentially injure or worse, kill them. They also may see finches which eat large amounts of live food as a threat as they are ‘stealing’ their food source.
In order to breed Splendid Fairy-wrens successfully they need to be housed correctly with the appropriate care. A minimum size aviary for one pair of Splendids is approx. 4m x 2m x 2.1m high and this should be well planted with a variety of shrubs and grasses. While this sized aviary is suitable, bigger would be better, as with any bird. An aviary should be built as big as your budget and space allows. Within the aviary, they need to be provided with sufficient privacy, space to perform courtship, suitable nesting sites and adequate food sources. Splendids need to feel safe and secure from predators. They should have sufficient cover to be able to hide away when feeling threatened.
The usual breeding season for Splendid Fairy-wrens begins during late August and will continue through until mid-February. Though this will depend on weather conditions and food availability.
Just before and just after the breeding season the male Splendid Fairy-wren will moult in and out of his stunning blue breeding plumage used to attract females. While he is going through the process of moulting he may become secretive and not be seen as often. It will generally take him 4 – 5 weeks to fully moult in and out of his breeding plumage. These moults can be somewhat physically demanding on the bird. You should ensure the birds have access to a well-balanced, nutritious diet.
The breeding diet for Splendid Fairy-wrens is essentially the same as the non-breeding diet. It is just increased. For Splendids to breed there needs to be a constant and adequate supply of live food. Increasing live food within the aviary will trigger breeding, this should be done at the beginning of the breeding season. Once the birds are confident there is enough food available to raise a nest of young, and all other conditions are correct, breeding should commence.
Courtship for Splendid Fairy-wrens is a very extravagant series of calls, dancing, chasing and much more. If interested in a very detailed outline of this courtship, a great description can be found in Rosemary Hutton’s book ‘Australian Softbill Management’. The courtship can be very complicated or simple depending on the individual pair.
Splendid Fairy-wrens build a nest for breeding; they are a dome shaped structure, with a thinly woven roof. Materials used for the construction of the nest will vary on what is available. Materials vary between rootlets, fine grasses and fibres, to a final lining of soft plant down and feathers. Sometimes cobwebs will be used to bind the various materials together.
The female will build the nest solely herself, the male will occasionally inspect the nest while she is constructing. The nest is built around a metre from the ground and usually in a dense shrub or tall grass.
Fine nesting grasses such as swamp grass should be provided within the aviary, along with soft feathers such as duck, geese and or emu feathers. If possible, it is best for these materials to be provided under shelter and in a basket or container up off the ground to allow them to stay dry until used. Cobwebs can be collected on the end of a small stick, and the whole stick can then just be placed in the aviary for the birds to collect and add to their nest.
The usual clutch size for Splendid Fairy-wrens is three, but occasionally she will lay only two and other times she may lay four or five eggs. The eggs are whitish in colour with brown speckles on the larger end. The hen will incubate the eggs all on her own. She will sit for short periods of 15 minutes or so, leave the nest to busily hunt, exercise, feed, and bathe. All within a few minutes before returning to the nest to continue incubation. Often the cock bird will inspect the nest while the hen is gone, and he will occasionally take an insect to her during incubation. The incubation period for Splendids is 14-15 days.
To know when your Splendid Fairy-wrens are nesting, they simply need to be observed throughout the day. If the female is seen carrying nesting material to the same general spot every time, you can assume she is building a nest. Never attempt to suss out the area and/or inspect her nest, she will most likely abandon it. Once she has built the nest, lays eggs and begins incubation, she won’t be seen as often as normal. Due to her incubating the eggs all on her own, she spends a lot of her time sitting. When she is seen, she’ll be frantically hunting and fluttering around getting everything done before heading back to her nest. Once the young hatch, both the hen and cock will be observed carting food into the nesting site and returning with empty beaks. In some cases they are known to be relatively secretive about their nesting and breeding. In my experience there have been times when we haven’t been aware of the pair nesting until one day they were seen carting food. If you pay close attention to the birds, you should be able to pick up on changes in their behaviour.
Splendid Fairy-wren young have huge appetites. The parents spend most of their day frantically fluttering around the aviary collecting insects and taking them to their young.
While young are in the nest, the parents will do their best to reduce the risk of predators finding the nest. The young in the nest will turn around and deposit a “poo-packet” into the parent’s beak. The parent will then take the deposit as far away from the nest as they can, drop it and then continuing attending to their young. This technique is used to deter predators away from the nest.
I have observed this behaviour myself. I watched the cock bird take a mealworm into the nest, he then returned with a small white blob in his beak. He flew to the furthest corner of the aviary and returned without it. He then went back to busily collecting food for his young.
Splendid Fairy-wrens fledge from the nest at a very young age, only staying in the nest for 10-12 days. Once they have fledged, the parents will defend their young with great courage. Having first left the nest, the parents will keep the young birds hidden in dense secluded bushes away from potential predators. During the first few days after fledging, Splendids look very clumsy and awkward. They have short stubby tails, and legs that appear too long for their body. However they grow very rapidly.
About 5-6 days after leaving the nest they will begin to venture out more, following the parents everywhere. Constantly begging for food. About 3 weeks after fledging the parents will begin the weaning process, teaching the young to catch, tenderise and kill their food. Splendid Fairy-wrens are independent 4 weeks after fledging from the nest.
Splendid Fairy-wrens are a multi-brooding species. They are generally known to rear two clutches within the one breeding season, but have been known to raise up to four.
As stated earlier, Splendid Fairy-wrens are a cooperative breeding species. All members of the family group assist with rearing the young. In captivity, only one pair should be kept together due to territorial reasons. This means that aviculturists cannot establish a family group in captivity. However the offspring can assist in rearing the next clutch during the same breeding season. In my experience, the pair raised a clutch of 4. Once the clutch of four were getting close to becoming independent and needed less and less of their parents attention, the hen returned to the nest, laid a new clutch of eggs and began incubating again. The first clutch were still in the aviary when the second clutch hatched and fledged. The first clutch were often observed carting food to the new young. The hen began constructing a new nest after the first two clutches, but soon abandoned it.
Offspring should be removed from the aviary once their parents begin showing signs of aggression, or vice versa. After the young are independent, they will only be tolerated for so long. If there haven’t been signs of aggression noted, young should still be removed from the aviary before the next breeding season. In my experience this can vary from 2 – 6 months, but of course this will be different depending on each bird’s individual tolerance, aviary size, food availability etc.
With the correct conditions provided, there is no reason why Splendid Fairy-wrens will not to breed. One of the hardest aspects of keeping this species, is maintaining adequate levels of live food. They need live food to live, but also will not breed if they don’t feel there’s sufficient amounts of live food for a nest of young. During the two years that I have worked with this species, they have successfully reared three clutches over the two breeding seasons. It’s all about taking the time and effort to ensure the birds are happy, safe and have everything they need in order to breed!
Splendid Fairy-wren family
Male and female (male moulting into breeding plumage)
Splendid Fairy-wren family
Male in non-breeding plumage
Male nearly in breeding plumage
Female feeding a chick
Male defending young
Male defending young
Male defending young
Male feeding young