White-winged fairy-wren (Malurus leucopterus)

Also known as: Barrow Island black-and-white fairy-wren, Dirk Hartog Island black-and-white fairy-wren, white-wing tailor bird, white-winged fairywren
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyMaluridae
GenusMalurus (1)
SizeLength: Up to 15 cm (2)
Top facts

The white-winged fairy-wren is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The white-winged fairy-wren (Malurus leucopterus) has three distinctive subspecies that are set apart by the birds’ geographical location and the adult male birds’ bold breeding plumage (3). The most striking individuals of this species are the breeding males of the mainland subspecies, Malurus leucopterus leuconotus. These individuals have entirely bright cobalt blue plumage apart from their wings which, as their name suggests, are white (3) (4), and greyish-brown outer flight feathers that are edged with pale blue (5). Adult females are dull in comparison, with grey-brown upperparts that are occasionally tinged with reddish-brown, cream-coloured underparts and reddish-brown flanks (4) (5). Immature M. l. leuconotus closely resemble the adult female (4). The bill of both adult female and immature birds is light brown, and the tail is tinged greyish-blue (4). This subspecies is noted for its large size compared to the other two subspecies, and its disproportionately short tail (5).

Endemic to Barrow Island, subspecies Malurus leucopterus edouardi differs significantly in appearance compared to the mainland subspecies (3). In breeding plumage, the Barrow Island adult male is predominantly a lustrous black, and has white wings (2) (3) (6), a dark bluish-grey tail (5), and a black bill (6). Its outer flight feathers are dark grey and edged with pale blue (5). The adult female of this subspecies is more drably coloured compared to the male, with greyish-brown upperparts, whitish underparts and a greyish-blue tail (2). The bill of the adult female is brown (2) or pink to pinkish-brown (6). During the non-breeding period, adult male M. l. edouardi individuals are similar in appearance to the females (2) (6). This subspecies is smaller than the mainland subspecies, but also has a disproportionately short tail (5). As in M. l. leuconotus, juvenile and immature M. l. edouardi resemble the adult female in appearance (6).

Considered the smallest of the three subspecies (5), Malurus leucopterus leucopterus is restricted to Dirk Hartog Island off the coast of Western Australia (7). Like M. l. edouardi, adult males in breeding plumage are silky black with white wings (3). The outer flight feathers are dark grey, noticeably edged with pale turquoise, and the tail is a dark bluish-purple. As in the other subspecies, adult female M. l. leucopterus individuals aremuch duller in appearance than the males, having greyish-brown upperparts, whitish underparts and flanks tinged with reddish-brown (5). The adult female’s tail is greyish-blue, and it has a pale pinkish or reddish-brown bill. In non-breeding seasons, adult male M. l. leucopterus individuals are only distinguishable from the females by their black bills and brighter blue tails (7). This subspecies is also particularly distinguishable by its disproportionately long tail (5). A juvenile M. l. leucopterus resembles the adult female in all but its shorter tail, which grows with age. Immature birds are also similar to the female, but some immature males develop a dappled black, white and brown plumage and a blue tail which makes them more discernible (7).

The white-winged fairy-wren is endemic to Australia (8), and is found in all states with the exception of the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania (4).

M. l. leuconotus occurs on mainland Australia (3), whereas M. l. edouardi is restricted to Barrow Island, off the coast of Western Australia (2) (6), and M. l. leucopterus to Dirk Hartog Island, also off the coast of Western Australia (7) (9). 

The white-winged fairy-wren occurs in a variety of habitats, including heathland, grassland and shrubland (6) (7) (8) (9).

The white-winged fairy-wren is described as a shy species that forages in low vegetation (4), feeding on invertebrates such as flies, beetles and insects, as well as seeds (2) and fruit (6) (9). This species hunts for food by hopping and plucking prey from the ground. M. l. leuconotus and M. l. leucopterus have also been documented taking insects from the air, and it is assumed that this behaviour is likely to occur in the Barrow Island subspecies M. l. edouardi (6).

White-winged fairy-wrens are co-operative breeders with a particularly interesting breeding strategy known as a ‘clan mating system’. A co-operative breeding group is made up of a breeding pair and ‘helpers’, and up to three co-operative breeding groups are held within the larger territory of a breeding male. This male has a mate and also, generally, helper individuals. Differences in the mating systems of the subspecies have been observed. The Dirk Hartog Island subspecies, M. l. leucopterus, produces smaller clutches and incubates its eggs for longer, while breeding pairs of the mainland subspecies, M. l. leuconotus, typically have between one and four helpers within the co-operative breeding group. This number is significantly reduced in the two island subspecies, or the helpers may often be absent, leading to the conclusion that although the mainland subspecies is a co-operative breeder, the island subspecies are often monogamous (3). 

The dome-shaped grass nest of the white-winged fairy-wren is large and has an entrance hole at the top (10). Eggs are laid between June and September or October, and clutch size varies between two and four (7). The eggs are incubated for approximately 14 to 15 days (6), and are white with reddish-brown spots (4) (7) (10). Young white-winged fairy-wrens are thought to be dependent on the adults for food for three to five weeks after leaving the nest (7).

The white-winged fairy-wren is not considered to be threatened and is common throughout much of its range (8).

However, the Barrow Island subspecies, M. l. edouardi,is regarded as being vulnerable because of its susceptibility to natural disasters due to the lack of variation in its habitat and the narrow shape of Barrow Island (6). Other threats to this subspecies include the introduction of invasive species to the island, introduced pathogens, and habitat loss as a result of fires or human development (11).

The Dirk Hartog Island subspecies, M. l. leucopterus, is also considered to be vulnerable due to habitat loss as well as predation by mammals that have been introduced to the island, such as goats, sheep, house mice and cats. This subspecies is also at risk from wildfires (7). Although not currently a problem, M. l. leucopterus would also be at risk should rats be introduced to the island, and there is also a potential threat from introduced pathogens (12). 

The Barrow Island and Dirk Hartog Island subspecies are both listed as vulnerable under the Endangered Species Protection Act 1992 and the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 (11) (12).

Although no specific conservation measures are in place for either of the two island subspecies (6) (7), all wildlife on Barrow Island is considered to be protected by law, which limits human development and habitat degradation (6). Suggested actions for Barrow Island fauna and flora include continued restricted development, quarantine procedures to avoid introducing non-native species, the development of fire management strategies, and raising conservation awareness within local communities (11).

Recommended actions for the Dirk Hartog Island subspecies have been to take a full survey of the population every three years, attempt to limit the spread of wildfires, and take action to prevent the introduction of non-native predators such as rats. The suggestion has been made to encourage landowners to maintain suitable habitat for this subspecies (7), particularly by preventing grazing at known habitat sites (12). It has also been noted that the removal of introduced predators would be beneficial in the long term for the survival of M. l. leucopterus (7). 

Find out more about the white-winged fairy-wren:

More information on Malurus leucopterus edouardi (Barrow Island):

More information on Malurus leucopterus leucopterus (Dirk Hartog Island):

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2013)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Moro, D. and MacAulay, I. (2010) A Guide to the Birds of Barrow Island. Chevron Australia, Perth. Available at: 
    http://www.chevronaustralia.com/environment/protectingenvironment/nature-books.aspx
  3. Rathburn, M. and Montgomerie, R. (2003) Breeding biology and social structure of White-winged Fairy-wrens (Malurus leucopterus): comparison between island and mainland subspecies having different plumage phenotypes. Emu, 103: 295-306.
  4. BirdLife Australia (April, 2013)
    http://www.birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/white-winged-fairy-wren
  5. Schodde, R. and Mason, I. (1999) Directory of Australian Birds: Passerines. CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.
  6. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2012) Malurus leucopterus edouardi. In: Species Profile and Threats Database. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra. Available at:
    http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=26194
  7. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2012) Malurus leucopterus leucopterus. In: Species Profile and Threats Database. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra. Available at:
    http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=26004
  8. BirdLife International (April, 2013)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=5191
  9. Garnett, S., Szabó, J. and Dutson, G. (2011) The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2010. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  10. Gould, J. (1865) Handbook to the Birds of Australia. John Gould, London.
  11. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2008) Approved conservation advice for Malurus leucopterus edouardi (white-winged fairy-wren (Barrow Island)). Conservation Report, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra. Available at:
    http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/species/pubs/26194-conservation-advice.pdf
  12. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2008) Approved conservation advice for Malurus leucopterus leucopterus (white-winged fairy-wren (Dirk Hartog Island)). Conservation Report, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra. Available at:
    http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/species/pubs/26004-conservation-advice.pdf