Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: The house wren

I made a point of getting up early this morning for two reasons. First, I wanted to be awake while the world outside was still nice and cool. With another day of 90-plus weather forecast, I didn’t want to miss being outside when I could enjoy myself without also being in a state of mild-to-moderate discomfort. The second reason I got up early was so I could sit on my porch and watch the property dispute that now rages in my yard.

The six acres that are recognized as “mine” in the human world are very important to me. I have a long drive to work just so I can come home to this little section of the surface of the Earth, but it is such a lovely little section that I don’t mind the commute so much. However, all of my deeds, property taxes, mowing, trail-building and general upkeep are completely ignored by my neighbors, who appear to think that this section is “theirs.”

In fact, they have subdivided my six acres into smaller subdivisions that don’t even seem to have any of the straight-line boundaries so typical of humans. Some of my neighbors share certain sections, while others bitterly fight with one another over who gets what. The disputes are never really settled and the owners of the prized bits are up every morning to jealously defend what part of “my” yard they think is “theirs.”

Of course, the neighbors I am speaking of are the birds, and they are welcome to claim anything they want. The reason I am so generous, so magnanimous in my tolerance of such interlopers, is because I simply love the way they fight. Although the summer is now approaching its zenith, and the season of the most widespread conflicts has passed us by, there are a few birds that aren’t quite ready to give up yet.

The star of the show this morning (and for the past two weeks) is a little male house wren (Troglodytes aedon) that sits in the lilac bushes just off the eastern railing of my porch and sings his guts out. I sat under the cottonwood tree that stands just 12 feet from this lilac bush and listened to the live feed of information coming from the avian world. I could hear song sparrows, blue jays, crows, house finches, common yellowthroats, mourning doves, chipping sparrows and a variety of woodpeckers making noises of various sorts, but they were largely obscured by the din produced by the little house wren.

House wrens have long-ish, complicated songs of a variety of chirps, chips and twitters that are virtually impossible to describe. The “maids, maids, put on your tea kettle-ettle-ettle” of the song sparrow is pure music when compared to the cacophony of sounds generated by the house wren. Roger Tory Peterson didn’t even bother to come up with a catch phrase for this unmistakable song, he simply described it as “a stuttering gurgling song, rising in a musical burst, then falling at the end.”

While I sat under the cottonwood tree, sipping at my morning coffee and luxuriating in the cool of the morning, I timed the songs of the wren. At one point he started singing new songs every five seconds and he maintained this pace for almost half an hour. Fatigue setting in, he then shifted to singing a new song every seven seconds for another 20 minutes or so. The reason for this emphatic singing? He has a nest nearby.

House wrens are in the minority among birds in the sense that they are cavity nesters. Most of our Neotropical migrants are cup-nesters, which means they arrive in an area and build a cup-shaped nest out of twigs, rootlets and fine grasses. The nests are quick to build because the birds building them don’t really have time to dilly-dally.

House wrens, on the other hand, build nests inside any cracks and crevices they can find and ever since humans showed up on the scene, the most abundant and attractive crevices are found in and around human homes ... or houses. This affinity for human structures was possibly the impetus for the common name “house wren.” Another possibility is the fact that they simply love bird houses that people put up.

Unlike most of our migrant birds, that are operating under the “wham-bam” model of nest-building and offspring raising, the house wren is a nest-building machine. After a male has claimed a territory as his, he will identify every possible nest cavity and build nests in all of them. To get the job done quickly he will also select some of the largest sticks used by any of the birds in the area (not including jays and crows, of course).

At just under five inches in length (a good portion of which is tail) the house wren is definitely near the bottom of the curve when it comes to body size. Only the hummingbird, the two kinglets, the red-breasted nuthatch, and some of the more diminutive warblers are smaller. But this is another memo that the house wren apparently didn’t read. We’ve got to mention that during our next annual review!

For all they lack in size, they seem to think they are as large as eagles. House wrens sing big and then they build big, too. One male may have a dozen or more “dummy nests” in his territory and they are all built with large sticks. The feats of strength that must go into acquiring, transporting and then pulling these sticks through small openings are absolutely amazing. At some point, however, one of these nests is selected as the real nest and it will receive a lining of fine grasses, fur, feathers, spider webs and any other soft materials that can be found. A typical bluebird box will be filled to the roof with the coarser sticks, with only a slender tunnel reaching to the back of the box and then angling down nearly to the bottom of the box. The resulting “chamber” of sticks is where the eggs will be laid.

The eggs, which can number between six and eight, are absolutely beautiful to behold. Some are white with chocolate spots, while others are more of a salmon-pink with the same chocolate accents. Their shells are glossy and the chicks that hatch out of them are so tiny that one struggles to comprehend how something so small can be alive. Then you remember that blackflies are alive and the Disney moment passes.

I just took a writing break and went out to check on the nest of the wren. I found three eggs and two chicks that appear to have hatched within the last 24 hours. No wonder he is singing so energetically! I also noted, with no little amusement, that this feisty little Romeo is missing all of his tail feathers. Apparently the property disputes are not limited to mere verbal taunts and challenges!

But it seems that the wren is an optimist and has turned defeat into victory, for included among the various treasures in the inner sanctum of his nest I found two tiny house wren tail feathers.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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