Raising House Wrens
House wrens do yard work for me.
I stand on my back porch and watch a tiny brownish bird streak from the apple tree to the garden, drop to the ground at one end of the vegetable bed, and disappear under the dense greenery. Broccoli leaves quiver as the bird travels through the hidden depths of the patch. The house wren emerges at the other end of the bed, with a large cabbage moth caterpillar bulging in its bill. I know where that caterpillar's going.
Under the eaves of our house, a gourd-like pottery birdhouse swings from a cord, and cradled within are seven baby house wrens. Hungry baby house wrens. They chirp continually.
Carrying the caterpillar, the wren dashes to the nest and dives through the entrance hole. For a moment, sound ceases. Then she's out and gone, and the babies begin to cry again. They're still hungry!
The nest is right outside my window. I've timed the parents' trips. From daylight to dusk, seldom does more than two minutes elapse between feedings. Observers whose patience exceeds mine have counted over 1000 feedings to a house wren brood in one day.
And what do these meals consist of? Caterpillars off my chard and broccoli. Aphids pried from apple buds. Grasshoppers out of my cherished green beans. Moths. Beetles. Snails. My garden does better when wrens patrol it. I knew this would be a good year for chard and broccoli when the wrens appeared, in mid April.
How the nest was won
Every year, a male house wren announces his claim in my yard with loud, rollicking, bubbling song. Wrens are tiny, but they sing big.
After the first male arrives, I don't often see other male house wrens in my yard. Hearing the territorial male's song, perhaps others recognize that they can't settle there without a battle, and that they'll improve their chance of breeding by silently moving on and looking for unclaimed territory.
After thoroughly exploring my whole yard, this year's male house wren selected the birdhouse hanging under the eaves. The previous spring, wrens nested in a dead limb of our old box elder. One year I found the wrens' nest in the hollow center of my huge ball of twine in the garden shed. During a childhood summer I spent with grandparents on Sauvie's Island, Oregon, house wrens built a nest in the mailbox at the end of the long gravel driveway. For the month until the young birds fledged, the postman brought the mail up to the house every day.
I was delighted that this year's male chose the birdhouse under my eaves, because it's close to the window that my desk faces. I knew immediately that he liked it. He stood on top of the birdhouse, swelled his chest, and sang at the top of his voice. Then with great energy he started bringing twigs and stuffing them inside.
Learning his craft
He had trouble with the long ones. I watched him try repeatedly to push one broadside through the small round opening. Eventually he turned the stick lengthwise, and it went right through. After the wren got the stick-and-hole puzzle figured out, his work went faster. Long after I thought the birdhouse must be crammed full, the little bird was still adding more sticks. He wasn't furtive about it. Each time he exited, he stood atop the birdhouse and sang, as if attracting attention were the main point of the exercise.
Perhaps he was correct, for after a few days a female house wren landed in the viburnum near the birdhouse. The male approached her, his short tail pointing straight up. He quivered his wings. He sang. He flew to the door to his treasure of a nest and looked over his shoulder at her.
She must have liked the birdhouse, because the female went inside and stayed for about a minute. Then she started pushing sticks out through the opening. After she had thrown out enough to make a small pile on the ground below, she brought dried grass into the birdhouse. She added a fluffy feather, coarse reddish hairs that reminded me of a certain neighbor's dog, and some round, cottony objects which proved to be spider's egg cases.
While the female was gone, the male replaced one of his rejected sticks into the nest. When his mate returned, she threw the stick out again. After that, the male brought dried grass, which his mate accepted.
Love's labor spurned
This male was lucky. Sometimes a female doesn't like the nest the male has started. One year a female went into a birdhouse a male was advertising in my back yard and then simply flew away and didn't come back.
No quitter, the male wren immediately began working on a new nest in a tree cavity. Eventually he succeeded in attracting a mate. Although I was disappointed, because I couldn't look into that nest, the wrens succeeded in raising a family there.
Male and female
Although male and female house wrens look alike, after watching them a while I believed I could tell them apart by their attitude. When the pair is feeding young, the female goes to straight to the nest. A few seconds before she arrives, the babies inside rev up the volume of their chattering. That tips me off to I look up from my work in time to see a wren, feathers sleeked down, land at the entrance to the birdhouse and disappear inside.
The male seems to want for me and everybody else to notice him. Suddenly a puffed-up little wren perches in the arrowwood viburnum next to the birdhouse. He clings to a vertical stem, points his sharp bill upward, and explodes into song. Then he's gone, only to reappear singing in a hawthorn on the other side of the nest. His wings vibrate. He sways from side to side. Even with his beak full of food for the nest, he sings.
After the eggs hatched this year, I stopped seeing two adults at the same time. Maybe one belonged to the minority of male house wrens who switch their attentions to a second mate and family before the first brood is fledged. I heard a wren singing from the other side of the house. That may have been the same male inviting another female to inspect a tipped-over flowerpot tilled with twigs in the tool shed.
However, the female under the eaves had motivation and energy enough to provide for her babies by herself. As they grew, the nestlings made more and more noise. They started poking their yellow-flanged bills out the entrance, opening them wide to receive whatever prey their mother brought. During the last few days in the nest they crowded at the entrance, vying with each other to put their heads out. Sometimes one of the babies was more outside the birdhouse than inside and almost fell.
(Watch a 21-second movie of the female feeding the young in the nest.)
About two weeks after hatching, the fledgling wrens left the nest. Although I neglected my work to watch the wrens' nest nearly all day, I saw only two of the babies actually leave. They flew straight and fast out of the entrance.
That evening, in the garden, I heard the chattering of a wren. On the wire fence by my neighbor's yard teetered seven fluffy baby house wrens. The mother brought the caterpillar of a cabbage moth to one and then led the family into a thicket at my garden's edge. For several days I sometimes saw the wren family, often in the chard or broccoli patch.
The harvest was excellent.
-- Diane Cooledge Porter
This story first appeared in
Bird Watcher's Digest, July, 2005.