Skip to main content

Seven Ways of Looking at a Fairywren: Student Research in Australia

By Kathryn Grabenstein
Red-backed Fairywren
Red-backed Fairywren by Dale Curtis via Creative Commons.

As the crimson sun heaves itself over the horizon, smearing red across the Australian sky, I raise my binoculars and advance through the dew-laden, waist-high grass. My mission: to catch a Red-backed Fairywren.

Related Stories

Red-backed Fairywrens are small, grass-dwelling birds that occur throughout Australia’s tropical savannah but are sometimes hard to see in the dense grass they inhabit. Yet, each morning, as sunlight brushes the treetops, their songs fill the air as they proudly proclaim their existence amidst the scrubby landscape.

My six companions and I—all undergraduates getting our first taste of field research via a program called International Research Experiences for Students (IRES)—have risen early to ensure we hear these songs and have the best chances of catching the fairywrens.

Each of us has come up with an independent research project for our 2-month stay in the hot, tropical savannah of Australia’s Northern Territory. Our projects cover a broad range of topics, but they all deal with Red-backed Fairywren ecology and they all require identifying individual fairywrens from a distance. This is why we spend so much time banding the fairywrens.

Our primary tool is the mist net, a fine mesh net strung up between two poles that blends into the background. Birds, unable to see the fine weave of the net, will unknowingly fly into it, become caught, and then we’ll carefully untangle them.

As light tinges the sky, the warbled reel of fairywrens fills the air (listen to their songs here). Acting quickly, my companions and I set up a mist net nearby. We arc wide around the net, moving as quietly as possible in the swishing savannah grass, and fan out to encircle the tittering fairywrens. Then, with the fairywrens between us and the net, we push forward, herding them towards the net.

This was the start of a typical morning for the seven of us and our three advisors during our 2013 summer Down Under. Fairywrens made great study subjects because our advisors—Mike Webster, Jordan Karubian, and John Swaddle—collectively have four decades of experience studying these fascinating birds. They’ve worked out a lot of details of the system, and yet there are still many facets waiting to be explored. We had spent the previous academic year reading scientific papers and discussing research ideas with our advisors. They guided our inquiries and helped us design interesting but also feasible projects. After we returned from Australia, we analyzed our data, tested our ideas, and began work on scientific papers. (We later presented our results at the 125th Annual Meeting of the Wilson Ornithological Society.)

Here’s a little more about each of our fairywren projects, in video form:

As I reach the net, I see we’ve caught our target and begin carefully untangling a patchy young male molting from dull brown to the resplendent black and red garb of an adult male. While female Red-backed Fairywrens maintain light-brown plumage year-round, males molt from brown female-like plumage to red and black feathers before each breeding season.

With the spotty male in hand I am reminded of how tiny fairywrens are—most weigh less than a house key! Our first task is placing a metal band around the male’s leg. The Australian government issues metal bands (just as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does back home), each with its own unique number. We are required by law to put one on fairywrens we catch so birds with these permanent bands can be identified if they are caught in the future. The tiny identification numbers etched on this band are hard to see without having the bird in hand, so next we give the male three plastic color bands, two on the right leg and one on the left above the metal band. These bands sit like bracelets and create a unique color combination based on their order, such as green-yellow-pink. Only one bird receives each combination, so we know that whenever we see green-yellow-pink bands on a bird, we are seeing the patchy male we caught this morning.

One thing that makes working with Red-backed Fairywrens so exciting is that they are highly social and constantly chitchatting with each other. During the nonbreeding season they are also highly mobile, meaning that on any given day a single bird could interact with upwards of a dozen individuals. All this moving around makes it hard to keep track of individual birds, and it’s another reason why banding the birds on our study area is a basic necessity for our research projects.

Once we’ve banded the male, we take a small blood sample that we will use later to see who this bird is related to, confirm if it’s male or female, and what its hormone levels are, all useful information for constructing a picture of how these birds interact with their social and physical environments. Next, we take a series of body measurements such as wing length and how much fat the bird is carrying. Finally, we take photos to assess molt patterns and parasites. The whole process takes around 5 minutes and then we release the bird to fly on his merry way.

Banding is a fundamental skill for nearly any field ornithologist because it allows researchers to collect data on individual birds.  Through the IRES project, students such as myself not only get a chance to conceptualize their own project, but learn hands-on skills that help us succeed in the behavioral ecology field.

As the hot Australian sun climbs higher in the impossibly blue sky, we take down our nets and set off in search of other fairywrens to band. By the time our 3 months here are over, we will have caught nearly every fairywren at our study site (roughly 100 birds in all) at least once and watched the daily activities of these fairywrens extensively.  But for now, it’s one bird at a time.

Kathryn Grabenstein

Kathryn Grabenstein is from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She graduated from Cornell University in 2014, where she studied Biology, concentrating in Neurobiology and Behavior. As an undergraduate she worked at the Cornell Lab with Mike Webster and Irby Lovette. She’s spending 2014–2015 as a researcher on a variety of bird research projects. In the video above, Kathryn is the student researching sound propagation.

More about fairywren research:

The Cornell Lab

All About Birds
is a free resource

Available for everyone,
funded by donors like you

American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library