ornithology

The Fab Five: Finches of Victoria

Finches have captured our attention for aeons, and around the world a number of similar-looking bird families have come to be commonly referred to as finches. They have a habit of living in small sociable groups, and are often cloaked in a striking plumage of resplendent reds, subtle olives, or delicate polkadot spots (sometimes all three!). This makes them very pleasing on the eye and great fun to watch as the finch party goes about its business. As biological history goes, it's quite lucky that these birds are so easy to watch, as the observations Charles Darwin made of finches on the Galápagos Islands formed a key part in his derivation of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

Victoria's native finches may not be as famous as the finches of the Galápagos, and you might not earn a reputation as esteemed as Darwin’s for watching them, but I highly recommend you get out and find them for yourself. It is possible to see five species of finch native to Victoria.

Red-browed Finch

For most readers, this is likely to be the species that you are most familiar with. They live in wetter parts of the state in the grassy habitats of forest openings, stream banks, and parks and gardens. If you live in the heart of Melbourne and think you will have to make something of a getaway to see this species, think again. Red-browed Finches can be easily found foraging among overgrown grasses along the Merri Creek Trail, Main Yarra Trail, and maybe even your own backyard if it has an 'untidy section'. Although the bright flash of red from its rump and brow can often give it away, more often than not it forages unobtrusively among the grass and its little peeping calls are what belie its presence.

Red-browed Finches can often be found feeding among seeding grasses.  Image: Rowan Mott

Red-browed Finches can often be found feeding among seeding grasses. Image: Rowan Mott

Zebra Finch

These charming little birds may also be familiar to you because they are often kept as pets in aviaries. They breed prolifically in captivity, provided they are well cared for, which has lent them well to scientific research. In fact, Australia's Zebra Finches have become the second most studied species of bird behind the Great Tit, and have been used to study subjects varying from neurobiology and development of song, to sperm competition and quantitative genetics.

This species inhabits drier country and their movements are influenced by local conditions. They can be nomadic and move across the landscape in search of favourable foraging conditions, particularly in response to rainfall. Victoria's Zebra Finch population hotspots are Hird Swamp Wildlife Reserve, Kerang Lakes, and Winton Wetlands. If you live in Melbourne and can't spare the time to trek to the north of our state, Zebra Finches can usually be found along Point Wilson Road and Beach Road near Avalon Airport, and in the You Yangs.

The many studies conducted on Zebra Finches have taught us much about bird biology, and some of the findings even have implications for human biology.  Image: Rowan Mott

The many studies conducted on Zebra Finches have taught us much about bird biology, and some of the findings even have implications for human biology. Image: Rowan Mott

Diamond Firetail

Humans have long-prized diamonds for their beauty and rarity. Although Diamond Firetails have been beautiful for as long as they have existed, the last century or so has seen these woodland denizens become quite rare. Suffering from the combined effects of habitat loss and habitat degradation, particularly in the core of their range along the inland side of the Great Dividing Range, populations of Diamond Firetails are in decline. For your best chance of seeing this true gem of a bird in Victoria, head to the Lurg Hills to the east of Benalla, Terrick Terrick National Park, or Little Desert National Park.

Diamonds are forever, so the saying goes, and you are sure to remember your first sighting of this beautiful finch forever. Image: Rowan Mott

Diamonds are forever, so the saying goes, and you are sure to remember your first sighting of this beautiful finch forever. Image: Rowan Mott

Beautiful Firetail

I often hear people complaining about how birds are named. For example, 'Why do we call it a Pink-eared Duck when the spot of pink is so small you can hardly see it?' In the case of the Beautiful Firetail, no such argument could be laid. Every bit of this bird is beautiful and to reinforce this point, not only does its common name include the word beautiful, but the species part of its scientific name, Stagonopleura bella, also translates to beautiful. In Victoria, Beautiful Firetails primarily inhabit wet coastal heathlands. They can regularly be found at Cape Liptrap, Cape Otway, and away from the coast in Bunyip State Park.

Beautiful Firetails, as the name suggests, are surely one of Victoria’s prettiest birds.  Image: Rowan Mott

Beautiful Firetails, as the name suggests, are surely one of Victoria’s prettiest birds. Image: Rowan Mott

Double-barred Finch

Double-barred Finches qualify by the merest of margins as a Victorian finch. They are common in open woodlands and scrub across northern Australia, but their range extends south to capture only a sliver of north-east Victoria. If you wish to add this species to your Victorian list (and why wouldn't you?), hillsides around Wodonga offer your best chance. Like the Zebra Finch, Double-barred Finches may also be nomadic as they search for favourable conditions. For this reason, you may want to check eBird for recent Victorian sightings before making the journey up to the north-east.

Double-barred Finches occur in only a very small proportion of Victoria. However, their striking plumage makes it well worth putting in some effort to find them.  Image: Rowan Mott

Double-barred Finches occur in only a very small proportion of Victoria. However, their striking plumage makes it well worth putting in some effort to find them. Image: Rowan Mott


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Rowan Mott

Rowan is a Monash University PhD graduate and now works there as an ecologist. His research interests are broad, spanning seabird foraging ecology to plant invasions. When not in his office, he will most likely be in a woodland with binoculars around his neck and camera in hand.

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.

Superb Songsters: Uncovering the Secret Lives of Superb Fairy-wrens

This is a guest post by Amy LeBlanc.

It is a cold morning in rural Victoria, the mists still clinging to the grass in the paddocks. The euphonious sound of birdsong is all around, filling the air with both harmonies and clashing notes. A nearby bush rustles and out of it bursts a woman covered in twigs and leaves. She is holding a big fluffy microphone and has a heavy pair of binoculars around her neck. This is Amy LeBlanc, a researcher from the University of Melbourne, and she is here to chase down one of the cuter members of the dawn chorus: the superb fairy-wren.

Superb fairy-wrens are a favourite fixture throughout the south-eastern corner of mainland Australia and Tasmania, where they can be found in a large range of habitats. Although the females are a subtle brown colour, the eye-catching blue plumage of the males has made these birds something of an avian celebrity; images of fairy-wrens appear on everything from postcards to teacups, and they are well recognised by the general public. Their pretty plumage and coquettish tail flicks, coupled with the bird’s propensity to approach people, makes this species a popular backyard bird. What the public might not know is that this sweet little tweeter has a rather sordid private life.

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

It has been known for quite some time that female and male wrens form lifelong partnerships where they defend a small territory and help to raise chicks together. Fairy-wrens have an interesting form of brood-care called cooperative breeding, where older sons will stay on with their mother at the nest and help raise younger generations of siblings. However, as it turns out, this happy little household holds quite a few secrets, and the family life of a wren is not as clean-cut as had previously been assumed.

In 1994, a study by Raoul Mulder showed that the large majority of eggs in a fairy-wren nest weren’t actually fathered by the dominant male of that territory. In other words, although the male and female were socially bonded, about 61-76% of the chicks he helped raise weren’t actually his. As it turns out, superb fairy-wrens have an extraordinarily high level of extra-pair paternity, where the female mates with males other than her social partner.

With this interesting mating system in mind, a long-term study was initiated at Serendip Sanctuary in Victoria to study a population of these unconventional songbirds. The study focused on personality and behaviour in the wrens. Each individual in the wildlife sanctuary was banded with a unique combination of colour bands, and over the course of the following decade extensive information has been collected on each Serendip bird.

It is this study that LeBlanc joined in 2015. Her specialisation is in animal communication, particularly the study of song complexity in passerine birds. Songbirds have long been thought to exhibit one of the most complex forms of audio communication know to science. Not only do their trills and warbles sound pretty, they are also able to convey an astounding amount of information from one bird to another.

Image: Timon van Asten

Image: Timon van Asten

Image: Timon van Asten

Image: Timon van Asten

Just as a human sentence is composed of words, syllables and phonemes all bound together by grammar, a bird song has phrases, syllables and elements bound together by syntax. And like a character out of a Shakespeare play, birds with larger vocabularies, or repertoires, are found to be more attractive by their peers than those who only know a few basic songs.

By recording the songs of superb fairy-wrens, LeBlanc is hoping to measure the repertoire sizes in different fairy-wrens and then compare their song complexity to traits such as sex, age and personality. She has also conducted experiments where she manipulated song recordings into complex and simple versions of the same song, played them to the wild wrens and recorded their reactions to each song type. Safe to say, the birds weren’t happy with the recordings: they were the equivalent of a stranger coming into your kitchen and belting out an opera. The level of reaction displayed by the birds in response to this intrusion can, however, tell us a lot about how they deal with conflict. LeBlanc is hoping to see if birds with different personalities react differently to her rude song intrusions.

Image: Timon van Asten

Image: Timon van Asten

What she has found so far is that males and females have similar repertoire sizes. However, male birds tend to cram more syllable types into each song than females. In other words, although they know a similar number of syllables, or “words”, the males choose to use more per song than the females. Unlike their female companions, they are a bit “wordier” with their lyrics. The results are preliminary and there is more yet to be explored, but what they show so far are some interesting similarities and differences between male and female birds.

Superb fairy-wrens, those sweet Australian songsters, have a lot more going on in their lives than simply showing off their feathers. From lifetime loves, to sordid neighbourhood affairs and complex sonatas, these birds demonstrate just how intriguing the social lives of our native animals can be. Through research and long-term studies, we can uncover all kinds of hidden facts about even our most common backyard birds.


Amy LeBlanc is a MSc candidate at the University of Melbourne, studying animal communication. She is passionate about science communication and anything with feathers.

You can find her on twitter @amylebird.


Banner image courtesy of Timon van Asten.