There are many elegant, magnificent and splendid birds, but why do some end up with such descriptors in their name? Do they deserve them? One twitcher is travelling the globe to find out.

With striking sky blue feathers on its crown and cheeks, and a rich black stripe around its eyes, it’s not difficult to imagine how the male superb fairy-wren got its name. It is indeed superb.

Its cousins, the splendid and lovely fairy-wrens, also live up to their superlative monikers.

“Fairy-wrens are among the most beautiful birds in the world and I don’t think that’s controversial,” Professor Andrew Cockburn says. “As a consequence, they have names which don’t actually describe their characteristics, but describe their beauty.”

Superb fairy-wrens breed in Canberra during spring and summer. Photo: Imogen Warren/Shutterstock.com

While the species is known for its colourful feathers, some of the variants, such as the red-winged or purple-backed fairy-wrens, have been short-changed, Cockburn feels. “If I was renaming all the variants I’d name them all superlatives. I’d like to have a gobsmacking fairy-wren.”

Cockburn, from the ANU Research School of Biology, has been studying superb fairy-wrens in the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra for more than 30 years.

He focuses on the species’ cooperative breeding habit —where the male and female are assisted by other fairy-wrens to rear their young — and their proclivity for promiscuity.

Superb fairy-wrens form pairs and bond for life, but during the breeding season in spring and summer, the female flies off before dawn to mate with a male outside her territory, then comes home and mates with her partner.

Professor Andrew Cockburn has studied fairy-wrens for more than 30 years. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

“In the 1980s, we realised how to use genetics to determine who the mother and father are and it was probably the most shocking result of the huge number of studies that occurred at that time,” Cockburn says. “I’ve been trying to explain this weird system ever since.”  

Cockburn’s work on superb fairy-wrens led him to ponder another question: What does a bird do to deserve a superlative name? To answer that, he decided to see for himself.

Cockburn wrote a list of all the birds with names he considers superlatives and he’s been travelling the world tracking them down and ticking them off — ‘twitching’ as it’s known in birding circles.

The intrepid quest has taken him to swamps in the Andes at night to see the noble snipe and into tropical forests in New Guinea in search of the emperor fairy-wren.

A deep green bird with a light green breast and dark green feathers and a long beak sits on a branch.
A green, yellow and red colourful bushshrike (bird) is sitting amongst branches. Behind the bird is a clear blue sky.
A bright blue bird called a celestial monarch sits in a tree amongst green foliage.
A bright yellow breasted bird with green feathers and an orange tail is in focus sitting on a branch. The green background is blurred.

An empress brilliant. Photo: Martin Mecnarowski/Shutterstock.com

He’s seen the handsome francolin in Rwanda, the ornate flycatcher in Ecuador, the paradise tanager in Peru and, closer to home, the regent bowerbird, a striking yellow and black bird found in rainforests in eastern Australia.

Generally, Cockburn says, the birds are deserving of their names. “There’s a gorgeous bushshrike in Africa and I looked at it and thought ‘gorgeous’ was a great name.”

There are several superbs, splendids and beautifuls, but some are less common, such as the resplendent quetzal, which lives in cloud forest and has a bold red breast, iridescent blue and green feathers and tail that can trail up to a metre. And yes, Cockburn has seen it.

Other superlative birds Cockburn has yet to lay eyes on include the charming hummingbird, which lives in a few valleys in Brazil, the festive coquette, also found in Brazil, the celestial monarch in the Philippines, and the princess parrot, an elusive creature inhabiting sandy deserts in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

“There’s only one ‘marvellous’, which I have not seen,” he says. “It requires going to one little valley in Peru to visit a bird called the marvellous spatuletail. I intend to do that because it’s one of the most extraordinary birds.”

One of a kind: a resplendent quetzal. Photo: Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock.com

His list of 22 superlatives covers more than 80 birds, but curating it required some deliberation about what names to include.

“There’s lots of ‘greater’ but that usually means that it’s bigger than the other one. There’s one that I’m ambivalent about called the grand rhabdornis and I think it means that it’s the biggest rhabdornis.

“It’s a fairly dull bird that’s like a starling, which I don’t think deserves a superlative at all.”

Superlative birds aren’t the only focus of Cockburn’s travels, during which he’s seen 5,086 of the world’s 10,928 extant species.

The use of names denoting beauty also led him to compile a list of the most insulting and frightening names given to birds. These include the paltry tyrannulet, the obscure berrypecker and a group of birds known as tody-tyrants, his favourite of which is the hangnest tody-tyrant.

“Some of them sound nasty, such as the satanic nightjar, which I’ve seen in Sulawesi. In that case people probably heard the call at night and didn’t know what it was and assumed it was the devil,” Cockburn says. “There’s one called the snoring rail, but that’s a habit of which I am guilty myself.”

A dark brown bird sits nestled amongst rocks. The bird is sitting with its legs tucked under its body.
A yellow-green breasted bird sits on a branch.
A close up photo of a light brown coloured harpy eagle. The bird has amber eyes and a sharp curved beak.

A satanic nightjar, which is on Professor Cockburn’s list of birds with the most insulting or frightening names. Photo: Rich Lindie/Shutterstock.com

Cockburn keeps a detailed spreadsheet tracking his twitching endeavours.

In addition to the superlative birds and their derogatory counterparts, he’s also chasing cooperative breeders, such as the fairy-wrens, and trying to see one bird from each of the 252 families. He’s currently 19 shy of this goal.

The pursuit has taken him around the world and he still has plenty in his sights. His next trip, after the end of the superb fairy-wren breeding season, will be to Panama, where he hopes to see a sapayoa and a harpy eagle, the latter of which he describes as “one of the most charismatic birds in the world”.

It’s a classic busman’s holiday, Cockburn says of his hobby.

Twitching provides profound insights into his decades of research and increases his understanding of bird behaviour. “Also, the birds are beautiful and my happy place is in the bush.”

A king bird-of-paradise, found in New Guinea. Photo: Dustin Chen/Supplied

So, after seeing more than 5,000 birds in the wild, does he have a favourite?

“The most extraordinary bird I’ve seen is the king bird-of-paradise,” Cockburn says.

Found in New Guinea, the tiny male has orange plumage, vivid green stripes on its wings, bright blue legs and feet, and two tail feathers with exceptional iridescent ends “that look like spiral galaxies”.

“It’s got glorious features,” Cockburn says.

Sounds superb.

Top image: A marvellous spatuletail, which is found in Peru. Photo: Jorge Yamamoto/Shutterstock.com

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