Backyard wrens: three kinds to watch and listen for
(published 10-4-06)

If I could choose one bird that I’d like to hear every morning for the rest of my life, it might well be the house wren. Its loud, exuberant song is hard not to love. The sound permeates our neighborhoods in the spring like no other.

Wrens are fun to watch, too. They’re always moving, always busy. I admire their industry.

I have only one birdhouse in my yard, a terra cotta model that I placed about four years ago with hopes of attracting a wren family. I’m still waiting, but this summer I had a close call. Just one day after moving the house to a new location, I noticed a wren checking it out. He perched momentarily on the roof and then went inside.

A day or two later, I noticed a single twig poking out of the house’s entrance hole. Yes! Nest building has begun! But then a funny thing happened: nothing. All activity suddenly stopped.

At times like these, it’s great to have a good birding library. I began reading up on house wrens and learned a lot about these common backyard birds with the big voice. Turns out I had witnessed some typical wren behavior. The males are known to choose several potential nest sites, “claiming” them with a few sticks and other debris. And yup, one stick out the hole is a classic marker.

Once his territory is in order, the male wren shows a female his handiwork. If one of the home sites meets her approval, she takes over and completes the nest.

Apparently my terra cotta casa didn’t pass muster. So I’ll clean it out and hope for better results in 2007. Meanwhile, the house will stay out all winter as a potential roosting place for chickadees.

House wrens head south this time of year, to the southern U.S. and beyond. October and November, however, are good months for spotting another kind of wren.

The winter wren is an uncommon treat. If you see one it will probably be on the ground, scurrying mouse-like through your garden or shrubs. These birds are smaller, rounder and darker than house wrens, and their stubby tails point straight up. Some say it has the sweetest song of all the wrens. I don’t dispute that, based on recordings I’ve heard, but I long to hear one in real life.

Winter wrens are seen here only during late fall and early spring, as they migrate to and from their breeding grounds in the North Woods and Canada.

Only one member of the wren family occurs in this region throughout the year, the non-migratory Carolina wren. This is the northern edge of its range, however, so the species is relatively scarce in these parts.

My yard has hosted a Carolina wren on just two occasions, and in each case I heard the bird before I saw it. Like the house wren, it announces its presence with gusto. And keep in mind that could happen at any time—the Carolina wren is known for singing during all four seasons.

To complete the picture, marsh wrens and sedge wrens also nest here. But as their names suggest, these species are closely associated with specific habitats. Neither one is likely to visit a typical suburban backyard.

For more information about wrens, and to hear their remarkable songs, go to

Jeff Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Ill., resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at

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