A Friendly Guest is Just Passing Through
In March, adult Rufous Fantails in southern Australia may have almost finished migrating north. Younger Rufous Fantails will be following them during March and April. During migration, these lovely birds often visit more open habitats including our gardens and parks, so look out for them.
You'll recognise the Rufous Fantail by what it's named for - firstly its gorgeous 'rufous' or reddy-brown colouring on its brow, back and tail feathers, and secondly, its fanned tail, which is almost twice as wide as its body. Unlike those other bird species where the male gets all the glory and impressive plumage, the female Rufous Fantail is just as brightly coloured, if a little smaller.
Listen out for Rufous Fantails calling with a series of thin whistles with rising pitch, or making a single or double 'chip'. Click here to hear their call. Their call is multi-purpose, as it can serve as both an alarm to warn off predators when hunting for food or as a way to attract a mate.
To encourage these birds in your backyard, include a bird bath and keep it filled with clean, fresh water. To make them feel doubly welcome, plant an understory of local native spikey shrubs, and you're sure to attract small birds that feel a little more comfortable with somewhere nearby to hide in case a cat or bird of prey shows up.
Installing a cat enclosure is a great idea if you want to let your cat go outside without harming any buddies. Click here to find out about some DIY cat enclosures.
The Rufous Fantail may be a bit shy at first. It is very quick, flitting from place to place like its cousins the Grey Fantail and Willie Wagtail, and it hides behind leaves a lot, too. But take up a good position and wait a while, and it may lose its fear and come up quite close to you.
This bird is really worth a closer look. Consider, for instance, this beautiful description of Rufous Fantail, published in 1929 by N Chaffer in a journal called 'Emu':
"Watch [a Rufous Fantail] for a few minutes. At one moment he flits about amongst the bushes with partly opened wings continually swinging the body and expanding and closing the beautiful fan-shaped tail. Then away he flies like a flash in pursuit of an insect, twisting and turning in the air in every conceivable attitude. He is seized with a sudden impulse, swoops down to the streamside and after a hurried bath is off again. Momentarily he pauses to pour forth his song of joy. His whole being seems to vibrate with the joy of living. Then he remembers his mate brooding on the dainty cradle overhanging the stream and hurries back to relieve her. At his approach she slips off. He whisks around the nest with expanded tail for a few moments and then quietly and contentedly settles on the eggs and is at peace."
Once Rufous Fantails pair up, both the male and the female look for the best place to nest, which is often a shady spot in the fork of a branch. They build a delicate nest out of fine grasses and small roots bound with cobwebs and lined with thin, soft leaves. The nest has a stem that extends from the bottom, and is like a wine glass in shape.
Click to watch a video of two Rufous Fantail chicks feeding from their parents - you won't guess which of them comes off the better! Skip to 38 seconds in.
While feeding, the Rufous Fantail keeps quite low to the ground. Look out for them showing off with some aerial acrobatics as they catch flying insects, or skip between promising piles of leaf litter. Don't be surprised if they constantly fan their tails and flick their wings and body while looking for food.
Avoid using chemicals and pesticides in your garden. Poison will accumulate in a bird's system over time as it eats more pesticide-affected bugs, and it could become sick or die.
DID YOU KNOW?
Sometimes Rufous Fantails join forces with other birds to hunt out the small insects they love to eat. A Rufous Fantail might go out to lunch with the Spectacled Monarch, Large-Billed Scrubwren, Green-Backed Honeyeater and the Little Shrikethrush.