Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops, at all.
When friends and family discover you’re a birder you start getting bird gifts. Some are gag gifts like my “birder nerd” coffee mug and several tee shirts with comical pictures of us awkward birders. There are also the more serious and welcome gifts such as birding books, my favorite birding cap, duck stamps, feeders, and DVD’s. I got Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” last Christmas. I’ve also received several bird houses–usually more decorative than practical, but decided to mount one of these on my wooden fence, near the climbing roses, last year. It was a very loud, colorful design and it didn’t surprise me when it was vacant all year. But this spring I have a growing family of resident house wrens, allowing me to observe this bird close-up. Loud house gets loud bird.
Wrens belong to the family Troglodytidae and are divided into 20 genera and 80 species, 9 in North America. The family name is derived from the Greek “trogle” meaning hole, and “dytes” meaning diver. This describes the often seen downward escape wrens use when stressed. Wrens are all New World birds except for the Winter Wren which likely crossed into Eurasia via the Bering Strait long ago. For the new birder, when you see a small, brownish bird with a longish decurved bill and upturned tail, think wren. These tend to be busy, fidgety birds. Your confidence in the ID rises if the bird is loud, often very loud. They have some of the loudest songs per gram of bird in the entire avian world. I usually hear a Carolina Wren long before I see it, and may never see it. My House Wrens seem to sing non-stop and one wonders why they are seemingly bringing attention to themselves and their house. Shouldn’t a small bird be hiding its young family and nest from predators. Not this bird. Move into the garrish house, sit on the roof, and let loose with song. Various wren pairs are even known to join together in duets, the female doing the backup and the male taking the lead.
So far I have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing 6 wren species; the House, Carolina, Cactus, Winter, Rock, and Marsh Wrens. The House is smaller and plainer than the Carolina, which is a bird of the southeast USA and has a rich chestnut-colored back, butterscotch breast, and white eyebrow. I’ve sometimes confused the Carolina’s full rich song with that of the Cardinal, but I’m getting better at that.
The hardest of these birds to see is the Winter Wren. It is the smallest of the group, darker, and has a very short tail. It breeds in the northern evergreen forests of Canada but comes further south in the winter, hence the name. Unlike its cousins it tends to hide near the ground, creeping through the dead leaves. You have a better chance of hearing its high pitched song than seeing it. Note I have no picture, yet.
I was birding the Arizona desert and a little frustrated that I hadn’t yet seen a Cactus Wren. Playing the song for 30 seconds changed all that. I was soon surrounded by several of the loud brash birds, seemingly posing for me on their cactus, right on cue. These are large spotted and striped wrens found throughout the lower southwest deserts.
Like the Winter Wren, the Marsh Wren is more often heard than seen. I first saw it in the vast marshes of Bombay Hook Delaware, when it briefly popped up to check me out and give me a quick shot, before hiding again in the tall grasses. These birds carry the decoy game to the extreme often building several dummy nests, before settling on the real deal.
The Rock Wren also obeys the restrictions of its name. I first saw this bird on the rocky cliffs of Point Loma California. Its a large, fairly plain wren of the western USA, often nesting in cliffs and crevices.
So my target list of North American wrens is now Bewick’s, Sedge, and Canyon species. That’s part of the fun of birding; watching the common bird in the back-yard birdhouse and at the same time planning on a strategy to find what you have not yet seen. The total target list of birds yet unseen is considerably longer than the list of those already seen and heard, and that will probably always remain so.