The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Wrens are Vocal Even in Winter
Ro Wauer, January 4, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Of all the songbirds that are present in South Texas in winter, none are as vocal as the wrens. This group of seven birds includes four that are with us year-round and three that are visitors only, arriving in September or October and heading back to their nesting grounds at least by May. All are skulkers, searching everywhere for insects; crawling about various structures, on tree bark, and all sorts of other closed and dark places. But more than any of our other songbirds, they seem the most content, singing all or partial songs each morning and at times later in the day, as well.

The four full-time resident wrens include our well known and almost everyone's favorite, Carolina wren. It is the heavy-set, reddish bird with a white eyebrow and short tail. We know it best because it lives in our yard, building nests is a variety of sites, from flowerpots to laundry on the line. And its song is a penetrating and joyous, often repeated "tea-kettle."

Bewick's wrens (pronounced like the car, Buicks) are almost as numerous, but utilize a very different habitat, so they are less obvious. This long-tailed brownish-gray wren also has a white eyebrow, is about half the size of the Carolina wren, and lives in our oak woodlands. It almost never lives in towns, but does frequent wooded neighborhoods with oaks. Even in winter, Bewick's wrens sing a spirited and extremely complex and musical song, often from the higher foliage. Yet their search pattern include every place possible, both high and low.

Marsh wrens are also year-round residents, but are almost never found away from wetland habitats, especially those with an extensive stand of cattails. This is one of the short-tailed wrens, usually brown to rusty colored and with a short white eyebrow. A careful look will also reveal white stripes on its back. It is extremely secretive, rarely coming into the open. But its non-musical songs, a rapid and rasping trill that sometimes goes on for extended periods, emanate from among the cattails.

The largest of our full-time wrens is the cactus wren, a resident of the drier, cactus dominated landscapes in the southern portions of our area. This is the heavily streaked wren that builds football-sized, grass and twig nests among the protective spines of cholla cacti and other thorny plants. It, too, has a white eyebrow, rust-brown crown, and a heavily barred, black-and-white tail. And its song is a distinct "choo-choo-choo" that is rarely heard in winter, but will be repeated dozens of times in spring.

The three wintertime-only wrens include house, sedge, and winter, in order of abundance. The one feature the three have in common is a very short tail. The smallest of the three is the reddish winter wren. Christmas bird counters may miss it some years, as it is one of the most secretive of the secretive wrens. It is little more than a tiny, plump reddish ball of feathers with a very short whitish eyebrow and a barred belly and flanks.

The sedge wren is only slight larger, is pale in comparison, with a pale eyebrow and buffy underparts, and a streaked crown. This little wren spends its winter in sedge fields or moist grassy areas and is most often detected by a sharp "tick" note. Its song, though rarely uttered on its wintering grounds, is a rapid, chattering trill that often descends at the end.

Finally, the most abundant of the wintering wrens is the little house wren. This is an extremely plain, long-tailed brownish bird, with much barring on the back and tail. It is the epitome of a wren, residing in weedy, cluttered fields, and actively searching high and low, in every conceivable nook and cranny possible, for insects. Watching a house wren during its hourly routine can tire even the most avid bird watcher. It will be in view one second and then disappear, only to resurface several feet away to search another hidden place with great deliberation. Then suddenly, without previous warning, it will sing a ditty that is rapid and bubbling, rising in pitch and then descending. And on a particular sunny morning, it may sing almost constantly for several minutes before it returns to its search pattern.

No other birds seem so happy as the wrens. Who's to ignore their curious antics and rich and joyous vocalizations?

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