The emu-wrens (Stipiturus) are a genus of bird in the fairy-wren family Maluridae. They are found only in Australia, where they inhabit scrub, heathland and grassland. They are small birds, 12–19 cm long with the tail accounting for over half of their length. The tail has only six feathers which are loose and coarse in structure, rather like the feathers of the emu. Three species are recognised, one of which is endangered.
The common name of the genus is derived from the resemblance of their tails to the feathers of an emu. The genus was defined by French naturalist René Lesson in 1831 after his visit to Port Jackson on the 1823-5 voyage of the Coquille, although the southern emu-wren had already been encountered and described soon after European settlement at Sydney Cove. The three species have been variously considered as one, two or even four species (the Western Australian subspecies westernensis of the Southern considered a species at one point. Their closest relative, based on allozyme studies, appears to be the orange-crowned fairywren of the monotypic genus Clytomyias from the mountains of New Guinea.
The three species are:
- Southern emu-wren (Stipiturus malachurus), found in coastal southeastern and southwestern Australia. It has seven recognised subspecies.
- Mallee emu-wren (Stipiturus mallee) (endangered), restricted to the Mallee country of Northwestern Victoria and southeastern South Australia.
- Rufous-crowned emu-wren (Stipiturus ruficeps) of the arid interior of central-northern Australia.
Ornithologist Richard Schodde has proposed the southern emu-wren is the ancestral form from which the other two species have evolved.
All three exhibit sexual dimorphism, the males have brownish plumage with rufous crowns of varying intensity, and a sky blue throat and upper chest. The females lack the blue coloration and are predominantly reddish brown above and paler below. Their most distinctive feature is their long tails, composed of six filamentous feathers, the central two longer again. The tail is double the body length in the case of the southern and rufous-crowned species. They weigh from 5.4 g in the case of the smallest, the rufous-crowned, to 7.5 g of the southern emu-wren.
Habitat and behaviour
The three live in distinct habitats: the southern emu-wren preferring marshes and heathland, the Mallee emu-wren inhabiting spinifex understory in Mallee woodland, and the rufous-crowned emu-wren dwelling in spinifex in desert areas. All are fairly secretive and hard to spot, living in low shrub cover. Emu-wrens are predominantly insectivorous, but supplement their diet with seeds. Their furtive behaviour and brown colour has resulted in them being mistaken for bush mice.
- Wade P. (ed.) (1977). Every Australian Bird Illustrated. Rigby. p. 188. ISBN 0-7270-0009-8.
- Rowley and Russell, p. 202.
- Rowley and Russell, p. 203.
- Christidis L, Schodde R (1997). (abstract) "Relationships within the Australo-Papuan Fairy-wrens (Aves: Malurinae): an evaluation of the utility of allozyme data". Australian Journal of Zoology 45 (2): 113–129. doi:10.1071/ZO96068. Retrieved 2007-09-20.
- Rowley and Russell, p. 33.
- Rowley, Ian; Russell, Eleanor (1997). Bird Families of the World:Fairy-wrens and Grasswrens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-854690-4.
- Del Hoyo, J.; Elliot, A. & Christie D. (editors). (2007). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 12: Picathartes to Tits and Chickadees. Lynx Edicions. ISBN 978-84-96553-42-2
- Pizzey, Graham & Knight, Frank (1997) The Graham Pizzey & Frank Knight Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, HarperCollins, London, UK.