In the brush, a male Superb Fairywren sat fluffing his feathers, occasionally pausing to chatter his sweet, rollicking song. His actions were regularly interspersed with restless fidgeting and flicking his disproportionately long blue tail. Nearby, other members of his small social group were foraging for insects on the ground. He left his branch and fluttered down among them.
The fairywren wasn’t hungry though. He raised his blue headdress, stretched out his neck, and bounced vertically into the air. He slowly descended, then fluttered furiously up again. One of the females paused her foraging to watch his undulating “sea horse flight.”
He fluttered up onto a low Acacia bush and flared his sapphire ear patches. Cocking his head back and forth, he contemplated his next move. Then he snatched a yellow petal and held it up for the female to see. As she watched approvingly, he presented it to her. Then he tilted his head back and poured out his song to the Australian sunrise.
The Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo waited patiently in the brush, watching the mound of grass and spider webs that was the fairywren’s nest. Finally the female’s head appeared in a hole on the side, her black eyes scanning the surroundings. Deciding everything was okay, she flitted out of the nest and joined the other wrens looking for evening insects.
In a flash, the cuckoo entered the fairywren’s nest. When she left a few minutes later, the nest contained one more egg. Her visit had been undetected, but none too short. Within a few minutes, the fairywren returned.
During the last few days of the incubation period, the female fairywren sang to her four eggs. Inside the eggshells, the baby birds began subconsciously absorbing a special note—except for the young cuckoo. He was not designed to pick up on her songs.
On day fourteen, the eggs began to hatch. Within twenty-four hours, every baby fairywren had hatched. The entire social group—consisting mostly of one pair and some of their older offspring—was kept busy hunting for insects to feed the babies.
The baby cuckoo hatched too. But despite his insistent calling, the fairywrens refused to feed him. The mother had taught her password note to the male too, and now they only fed the babies that begged with the password call. The baby cuckoo did not learn the proper call, and the next day he was unceremoniously removed from the nest.
The nestlings grew rapidly, feathering out by their tenth day. The adults regularly visited with succulent insects, most of which were larger than the insects the adults normally ate. After almost two weeks, the nest was getting crowded.
One morning, the mother poked her head into the nest, displaying a large caterpillar. The nest erupted in begging, but she withdrew her head and chirped. A puzzled chick poked his head out to see what had become of his breakfast. Again, the mother held up the caterpillar and chirped encouragingly.
The chick followed her movements with hungry eyes. Finally he fluttered out of the nest toward her. His wobbly flight did not last long, however, and he drifted down to the ground a foot below. The mother alighted beside him and rewarded him with the caterpillar. He savored the bite; then, with a great effort, he fluttered up to the branch above.
He was eventually joined by the rest of his siblings. Blinking his eyes, he looked around. There were so many things to see! He watched with intent interest as a grasshopper landed on the ground below him. Just as it hopped out of sight, the male fairywren swooped in and snatched it. Suddenly, the chick realized that the grasshopper was food! He chirped indignantly as his parent leisurely swallowed the bug.
Hearing him, the adult looked up, cocked his tail, and flitted away. In a minute he was back with another grasshopper. The chick, eyes still full of wonder, opened his beak, and the male poked the bug down his throat. He swallowed deeply and stared up at a flock of Crimson Rosellas flying overhead. For now, all was well in his world.