Captive breeding of Splendid Fairy-wrens

Malurus splendens

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 sof