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Big birds and little birds

You may recall this scene in New Quay, Docklands. The straight concrete path leads to the Yarra River.

underworld of Citylink near Ron Barassi Senior Park

I found the mood bleak and dispiriting though I may have had a lockdown perspective. The landscape is connected under Citylink but divided by the concrete pathway. It’s easy to read the different management regimes on either side of the path – to the left, neat and tidy well maintained indigenous vegetation, and to the right, messy exotic weeds and bushes. Brisk movement in and out of the weeds alerted me to the presence of Superb fairywrens.

Male Superb fairywren in full breeding plumage photograph Andrew McCutcheon

My inclination to the neat and orderly had led me to look favourably on the well managed vegetation whereas the messy untended landscape was favoured by the fairywrens.

Puzzled by these two observations, I spoke with several people who have been observing birds in our area for more than two decades about why the wattlebirds might have disappeared, and what particular conditions suit Superb fairywrens and other small birds, if we want to encourage more of them into urban landscapes.

Michael Norris, passionate naturalist in Bayside, has sadly noted the complete disappearance of small birds such as Eastern Spinebills and wrens from his Brighton garden over the last five years. Gio Fitzpatrick has documented the presence of many small birds in the gardens of the Ripponlea estate, a largely exotic landscape, and their decline and absence elsewhere.

The notable decline in small birds is attributed in part to the ever increasing presence of the noisy miner. The Noisy miner, Manorina melanocephala, is a native honeyeater. The way we have planted our public gardens and reserves with fringing flowering eucalypts around a mown lawn, ‘is like having Mcdonald’s open 24/7, 365 days a year’ according to Michael. The Noisy miner is a highly social and aggressive bird that drives out other birds.

Superb fairywrens have weak powers of flight. They need to be able to retreat to the protection of covering vegetation. They are insectivorous, so conditions supporting insects and other invertebrates are also vitally important.

Gio Fitzpatrick is so concerned about the plight of our small birds that he now sees private gardens as the only safe refuge for them. The Noisy Miner has changed the scene so much that for small birds he says that ‘parks and creek corridors are now death-traps to be avoided’. To assist gardeners to create small bird friendly environments, he has created a helpful guide to the birds of South Eastern Melbourne. The most important thing is to attend to the structure of the vegetation. The kind of vegetation structure to aim for is one that ‘a tennis ball might get stuck in’, he says.

I was struck by how many fairywrens there were at Westgate Park when I visited during the recent lockdown. 45 Superb fairywrens were counted in the July bird survey at the Park. It is clear that the vegetation structure and composition at Westgate Park is providing suitable conditions for the wrens to become resident there. All future management must take this into account.

Michael Norris was pessimistic. He saw the ongoing march of the Noisy miner as inevitable, whereas Gio is hopeful that through adopting wiser revegetation and planting approaches, small birds can not only survive, but thrive, in the urban landscape. Lessons can be learned from the environments and the vegetation structure at Westgate Park as well as the messy, neglected landscape where the Moonee Ponds Creek meets the Yarra River.

Thanks for sharing your observations, insights and experience Michael Norris, Gio Fitzpatrick, Andrew McCutcheon

The Gardener’s Guide to the Birds of South East Melbourne Gio Fitzpatrick or email gardenersguidetobirds @ to order a hard copy for $15.

Birdlife Australia invites you to submit your blue wren sightings using this form or joining the facebook group Superb City Wrens. The Superb City Wrens project is a partnership between the City of Melbourne, BirdLife Australia, The University of Melbourne and RMIT University, investigating how to help little bush birds in the city.

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