Scientists call on public to count fairy-wrens

By Australian Geographic 9 September 2021
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A new and exciting citizen science project has launched this week. It’s subject? One of Australia’s favourite birds, the superb fairy-wren.

The citizen science project Superb City Wrens launched this week and asks Australia’s city-dwellers to submit their sightings of fairy-wrens

The call out comes after BirdLife published figures that demonstrated a significant drop off in reporting rates for superb fairy-wrens in cities such as Melbourne, Perth, Hobart and Sydney over the past seven years of the annual Backyard Bird Count.

According to project leader and urban ecologist, Kylie Soanes, Superb City Wrens came about after the City of Melbourne wanted to understand what kind of habitat within the urban landscape superb fairy-wrens were most attracted to. 

“It’s a bit of an experiment to see if we can get more fairy-wrens in more places by doing some habitat restoration works in urban parks,” Kylie says.“The council will plant some lovely new fairy-wren habitat and movement corridors, and we’ll compare the movement and distribution of fairy-wrens before and after to see how well it worked.”

Related: A guide to Australia’s fairy-wrens

Superb City Wrens is a joint project between the City of Melbourne, RMIT, The University of Melbourne and Birdlife Australia. The decline in reporting rates of the superb fairy-wren during the bird count will be an important line of enquiry. 

“Often when we think a species is ‘common’, we take it for granted and don’t pay that much attention to it,” says Kylie. “Gradually, you start to hear stories like ‘Oh, there used to be fairy-wrens there, but I haven’t seen them for years’, and before you know it, there are hardly any left and you don’t know why. 

“By having lots of eyes on the ground, we’ll have a much better chance of understanding what the problem is. It could be that we’re losing too much of the habitat that supports city wrens, like the dense shrubs that they shelter in. It could be that cats and ‘bully birds’ such as wattle birds and noisy miners are driving them out.

“The more we learn about the places where fairy-wrens are and aren’t, the better we’ll be able to tailor our parks and backyards to support this species into the future.”

Even if you don’t see any fairy-wrens around your city, that’s important to record as well. “It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But the places where people don’t see fairy-wrens are just as important because they can help us understand what fairy-wrens don’t like. 

Related: Sixteen-year-long study reveals secret lives of purple-crowned fairy-wrens

“If all the places that don’t have fairy-wrens share something in common, then that’s a hint at what might be driving the wrens away.

“These sites then become targets for us to fix up, like we’re doing with the City of Melbourne, and we’ll be able to see if the changes we made turned it from ‘shabby’ to ‘superb’ for fairy-wren habitat. That’s a really powerful way to evaluate the success of conservation actions.”

After starting out as a Melbourne-based project focused on the superb fairy-wren, widespread support has meant the team of scientists has opened up the project to submissions from other cities and all species of fairy-wren. 

You can join the Superb City Wren Facebook community group here and submit your sightings here. BirdLife’s annual Backyard Bird Count will take place this October.