Tuesday, May 28, 2024
HomeNewsEnvironmentIt’s like a soap opera in your garden

It’s like a soap opera in your garden

Today’s Bird of the Day, the superb fairy-wren, was chosen by Holly Parsons, Urban Bird Program Manager with BirdLife Australia.

She is not alone – the superb fairy wren is a favourite of many people. They are so loved that last year they were crowned the Australian Bird of the year in the Guardian and BirdLife Australia annual poll.

Their image is featured on coffee mugs and tea towels and general Australiana-themed homewares.

Researchers also love these birds – they are one the most studied birds in Australia.

What Parsons loves so much about them extends beyond just their cute appearance and into their amazing social lives.

“They are what we call socially monogamous,” she said, “a fabulous term, which means that while they seem to have this solid family unit of a pair of breeding birds with a number of helpers, it is all for show.

“Males will go and display to neighbouring females using lovely yellow petals – and females will sneak out before dawn to mate with a neighbouring male.”

She said that fairy-wren behaviour had been particularly well studied in the ACT by a long-term research team in ANU. What they found was amazingly high rates of extra pair paternity – so the dominant male was usually not the father of the offspring he was raising.

“While mum and dad sound really quite dysfunctional, the young birds do have to earn their keep. Young subordinate birds, usually the males as they get away with staying with mum and dad longer than the females, help raise the new young by providing food to the nestlings.”

Parsons said the female was key, however. “Over three or four days she builds a dome nest with a side entrance, not the usual cup shaped nest.

“Then she lays and incubates the eggs by herself. It is during that time that she is also busy helping her eggs get an important advantage.”

Parsons said superb fairy wren nests could be parasitised by cuckoos like the Horsefield’s bronze-cuckoo, which lay their egg in a superb fairy-wren nest and hope the fairy-wren family take on the cuckoo chick as their own.

“Researchers have shown that mothers sing a special tune to their eggs before they’ve hatched. This ‘incubation call’ contains a special note that acts like a family password. The embryonic chicks learn it and, when they hatch, they incorporate it into their begging calls.

“Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoos lay their eggs too late in the breeding cycle for their chicks to pick up the same notes. They can’t learn the password in time, and their identities can be rumbled.

“It’s amazing to think that these extraordinary lives, like something from The Bold and the Beautiful, can be played out in our very own gardens.”

Fairy-wrens. Photo: Penny Webb

Become part of a green web

Parsons said there were many ways to interact with birds.

“The best thing you can do is create habitat for them. Whether you own, or rent, have a tiny courtyard or balcony or live on the old quarter-acre block, putting plants in the ground, or in pots, create shelter, food and even nesting resources that birds need.

“Try viewing your garden in the context of the surrounding landscape. It can sometimes be a very interesting (and frustrating) exercise.

“Jump online and have a look at Google Maps to take a bird’s-eye view and note where your closest parks, remnant bush and other pieces of vegetation are. Go for a walk around your suburb too, getting familiar with the layout and also with the local birdlife.”

She said by first knowing what plants and birds were in their suburb, people could look at what could be added to their garden, both to complement what was already there (like planting native plants found in the local bushland remnant) and to provide some new features (such as nest boxes if hollows were in short supply or dense shrubs if they were absent elsewhere).

“Find your local native nursery (local council websites will often have them listed) and get along there to get a hold of some great locally native plants that will grow in your conditions.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t a hard and fast formula for a bird-friendly garden as it all comes down to the habitat that the individual bird looks for as well as the specific resource they require at that time.”

She said when a bird visits a garden it is generally coming for one of a few options:

  1. Food – there is some great grub on offer (e.g. something is in flower or fruiting)
  2. A drink or a bath (from a bird bath or pond or from water condensed on leaves)
  3. Nesting material or a nest location

“However, even if you provide all of those features in some form, if the physical structure of your garden is not something that a species looks for then it will be unlikely to visit (or will only visit fleetingly).

“By physical structure I mean the configuration of your garden – the proportion of trees, shrubs, groundcovers, grass and even concrete that is available.”

Parsons said what suits one bird, might not necessarily suit another.

“A willie wagtail might prefer a garden with lots of open lawn space for foraging and a tree or two with branches to perch on. However a brown thornbill would view that garden as a desert – there is no protection from predators and nowhere for them to feed. They prefer a garden that has a high proportion of shrub cover to provide shelter and lots of leaf litter to encourage insect activity.

“So what is the answer? You can try to target your garden towards one species or group of species by providing the habitat that they specifically need. A second (and preferable) option is to plant for structural diversity and maximise the number of different birds you can attract.”

She said it was simple to achieve that: plant lots of different layers.

“By including some lawn, native grasses and groundcovers as well as shrubs of various heights, small trees (large if space permits) and even climbers, your garden is going to be explored by lots of different types of birds, each seeking out different layers. Maximise the niches within your garden and maximise the birds!

“Try not to be too disheartened if you seem surrounded by a concrete jungle. Your garden can still be a vital stepping stone for many birds, connecting them with a local parkland, a great garden a couple of streets away, or the bush in the next suburb – it just might take a while for them to discover it.”

She said it could also serve as an inspiration to others.

“I have been surprised by how often I have been told of neighbours starting to include bird-friendly plants after one great garden is planted, so talk to your neighbours about what you are doing and the birds that you are seeing.

“Become a part of the green web in your community. And remember the more habitat we create, the better for the birds.”


Follow @southsydneyherald on Instagram to see our birds of the day and learn about protecting urban biodiversity.


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