August the First is a good time to consider the house wren. Young wrens are out of the nests now, boldly exploring the backyard. This won’t last long. Wrens are early migrants. Although some may tarry, in general wrens will depart by the middle of the month.
Of course, the house wren is among the most familiar birds in much of North America. The birds like open spaces, and they are cavity nesters, taking readily to man-made structures. This isn’t limited to bird houses, either. Almost any tight spot will do.
Several summers ago, a pair of house wrens raised a brood in a gap at the corner of a crude structure I’d put up as a mulch bin. They didn’t mind that I was dumping grass clippings, weeds and other detritus into the bin almost on a daily basis. At our place near Blaisdell, N.D., wrens nested in the open end of a pipe that was part of the clothesline. Another pair literally moved into the house, building a nest in the dryer vent. They were safe there; we did our laundry at home and used the ranch house only on weekend visits.
In “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” Robert E. Stewart writes: “Nests were located in a considerable variety of situations. Most nests were built in holes of stumps, dead trees, and dead snags of living trees, or in small bird boxes.”
He also notes records of wren nests “in a crevice within an old Swainson’s hawk nest and in a pair of old overalls hanging in a tree in Nelson County, in bank swallow holes in Burke County, in an old boot hanging on the side of a cabin near Devils Lake, between a window and a broken screen in a hunter’s lodge in Ramsey County, on a beam in a shed in Morton County, in a crevice of a porch roof in Billings County, in a twine box on a binder in Grand Forks County, and in a knot hole of a log in a log house in Rolette County.”
Many of these are included in the Peabody Museum collection at Yale University. They come from literally every corner of the state.
Similarly, “Breeding Birds of Manitoba” says of the house wren: “The species is noted for the occasional choice of bizarre sites in man-made objects.” The book, published by the Manitoba Naturalists’ Society, lists examples including “a coat pocket, a letter box, a clothes basket and (on several occasions) vehicles or farm machinery.”
Clearly, this is an adaptable species.
House wren nests are a jumble of twigs. Some of these can be surprisingly large and often take up virtually all of the space within the cavity the wren pair has chosen. Wrens sometimes build dummy nests, the better to confuse predators and curious passersby. They are aggressive in defending the nests, both the real ones and the dummies.
To human observers, wrens appear sociable and cheerful. They are conspicuous and readily identifiable. Their chatter seems charming and their song is appealing, and so they are almost invariably welcome.
In the bird world, their reputation is probably different. Wrens are intolerant bullies – the very definition of nasty neighbors. This behavior makes them dominant in their preferred habitat, which Stewart describes as “wood margins or semi-open woodlands,” noting that these include “partially wooded habitats created by man, including residential areas of towns and farmsteads, and mature shelterbelts and tree claims.”
The wrens are an almost exclusively American family; worldwide, there are 85 wren species and only one of these occurs in Eurasia. South America has the most species, including one that is very similar to the northern house wren of our backyards.
House wrens are easily identified by their big bills, big bellies and big back ends. Their tails are relatively long in proportion to the body, and they often hold the tail upright or nearly so. This may be part of their bully bluffing. It makes the birds look larger than they actually are.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.