an exuberant bird in a plain brown wrapper

July 26, 2005

in Birds, Natural history

My constant companion in the garden is a male House Wren (Troglodytes aedon).  Naturalist John Burroughs noted that “Probably we have no other familiar bird keyed up to the same degree of intensity as the house wren.”  Indeed, as Burroughs went on to write, “The wren is habitually either in an ecstasy of either delight or of rage…. a lyrical burst one minute, a volley of chiding, staccato notes the next.”

Ever since he arrived in May, this wren has sung from dawn until dusk, having staked out his little territory in my yard. We have two wren boxes — the real thing, made to spec, not the crappy generic houses which become House Sparrow factories — and a nice snag with a wren-sized hole in it. We are organic gardeners, so our patch is buggy.  Several neighbors have boxes, too, so this is prime wren real estate.  The singing was especially zealous when a rival male was also attracted to all the housing opportunities.  It has taken a good chunk of summer to sort things out, with one wren in our yard, another across the street, and a pair of Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) down the way (they’ll be back this winter, mooching mealworms from my office windowsill).

Male wrens construct “dummy nests” in nearly every available cavity. A female being wooed gets to check out all the different nest sites, and chooses her favorite to complete decorating.  I usually take pity on the male wrens that have ended up here, working tirelessly hauling twigs much longer than themselves to the boxes, and struggling to insert them.  I often snip some of my spring prunings into wren-sized pieces and place the piles in handy locations.  One year, I was amused to watch a wren fill up one of the houses with styrofoam packing peanuts, which he was garbage-picking behind somebody’s garage. That nest was apparently a loser, and was never inhabited.  But this year, a pair has taken up homesteading in one of our boxes.

At this point in late July, the song of most other birds has been silenced by mid-summer brood-rearing weariness, with the only avian soundscape being the inharmonious chirping of House Sparrows and the various strident demands of young cardinals and robins. The only bird still singing with enthusiasm is the House Wren.  He tosses out a brief volley of song before he pops in the box, and he follows up with another effervescent outburst after he leaves it.  His mate comes and goes in more modest silence.  Females of some populations do sing at times, but usually lack the male’s melodious style.

This pair lost their first brood, but a new batch of eggs was recently laid. We are eagerly awaiting the debut of the youngsters. When their noisy begging combines with the anxious chiding of their attentive parents, you’d think a miniature maraca factory was traveling through the underbrush.

The liveliness of wrens is a perfect foil for late summer lassitude. As I sit on the patio with a paperback, or survey the garden with my morning cup of coffee, I find that the wren appears from nowhere, and begins to scold me, it seems, for my lack of industriousness. It was easy to feel guilty for relaxing, until I noted that the wren offered the same extreme commentary when I was busy weeding, transplanting, or engaged in any other activity which felt was a righteous expenditure of energy. No matter.  Whatever a wren has to say, I’m willing to listen, even if it takes all summer long.


berlin heck July 26, 2005 at 3:53 pm

I note that you use a circular entrance to the nest box and you mention the large sticks carried in by the Wren. May I suggest that you make Wren boxes with a wide strip cut out across the front, but the same height as the Wren entrance. This arrangement will still prevent entrance by larger birds and other "non-welcomes", but will allow the Wren to carry in the large sticks much more easily. Also, wonderful article and great photo!

Pamela Martin July 27, 2005 at 7:14 am

Hi Nuthatch: Interesting blog, lovely wren picture, enjoyable post. I too am surrounded by wrens–this year there are two pairs nesting in the bluebird boxes in the yard, for second nesting. First nesting, one pair, who were successful, so for a while there were house wrens everywhere, and shortly I expect there will be again. But I am envious of your Carolina wrens!

TroutGrrrl July 27, 2005 at 12:18 pm

Howdy Nuthatch,

Cool post and picture. As usual. 🙂

I, too, have an overwhelming number of house wrens around the house and garden. They've had a good reproductive summer. Do you find that providing wren-specific houses reduces the incidence of wren damage to other clutches in the immediate area? I've had all 6 or 7 of our bluebird clutches fall prey to the wren-hole-poking competitive tactic this summer. I'd love to learn of something I could do to discourage this a bit….

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