Bay Journal

The Carolina wren, in singing its heart out, captures ours

  • By Michael Burke on January 01, 2012
  • Comments are closed for this article.
Both Carolina wren parents participate  in building  their domed, twig nest and take turns incubating the eggs, above. (Mark Musselman / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) In the Chesapeake region, Carolina wrens will produce a brood of five to six birds twice a year. (Mark Musselman/
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

The hour was early, but it was already hot out on the deck, promising to add one more 90-degree-plus day to this summer's record books. The resilient black-eyed susans and colorful summer phlox were blooming in our two backyard flower beds, a pair of oases in the sterile desert of our brown lawn. Early action at the bird feeders had tapered off. An occasional robin showed up to use the birdbath.

In the privet hedge to my left, an endless stream of "tweedle-tweedle-tweedle" came bubbling forth. Most backyard birds had finished their territorial and breeding songs weeks ago. Even simple call notes were rare, as most birds were taking refuge from the oppressive heat. They'd be back at dusk, when the heat would begin to relent.

The only creature seemingly immune to the heat was the endlessly chattering Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovivianus). These wrens tweedle away all day long and all year round. We have welcomed Carolina wrens in our backyard for years. They are handsome birds and I love their effervescent chatter.

During the Summer Olympics, my wife and I would see if we could guess the sport a person participated in based solely on the athlete's build. The tiny, powerful women of gymnastics were easy to spot. The modern-day giants of international basketball were also easy to guess. Carolina wrens are like that. They have a rather small, plump body, a long, slightly decurved bill and a stiff tail that is often cocked straight up. Even a quick glance tells most birders, "that's a wren."

What distinguishes Carolina wrens from the eight other wren species native to North America is the Carolina's rich coloring. Carolinas are a vibrant, rusty brown above. A dramatic, long white eyebrow is topped by a black supercilium. Just below that gently curved bill is a white throat patch. The breast and belly coloring is a warm, reddish brown. After a fresh molt, and in the proper light, these birds' undersides can range from cinnamon to chestnut to a faint golden brown. Carolina wrens are about 5.5 inches from beak to tail.

Carolina wrens form lifelong pair bonds. Both sexes are alike in coloring and size, but only the male sings.

As is often the case in the avian world, when both sexes look alike, both share duties at the nest. They build a domed twig nest lined with feathers and an opening on the side. Both parents jointly incubate the five to six eggs in each brood. In the Chesapeake region, these birds will comfortably produce two broods annually.

Carolina wrens are yearlong residents throughout their range in North America. As their name declares, one can find these wrens in the Carolinas, but that's just a start. Their range radiates out far from the Carolinas, including the entire southeastern United States, up to the Great Lakes and across New York into southern New England.

These birds favor marshes and thickets, but they aren't shy around humans. A backyard with sufficient bushes and bugs often will do just fine.

These insect eaters daily spend long hours looking for spiders and other protein-rich bugs. The wrens capture their prey from a branch or on the ground. They also eat fruit.

The noisy wren in our privet hedge has been a source of endless song since early spring. The bird and his mate had nested in the Oregon grape bush just outside our bedroom window. For weeks I'd awaken to the flood of tweedle-tweedle-tweedle notes pouring forth with enthusiasm. A closed window and the rumble of the air conditioner were no match for this wren. He woke me up every day, often long before the alarm went off. I don't think I minded even once.

Their first set of chicks had fledged weeks ago. A second brood had fledged as well, I'd bet, but the oppressive heat has made me an infrequent visitor to my own backyard for confirmation.

Carolinas are noisier in the spring and summer, it seems. I presume it has to do with establishing territory, selecting mates and protecting their chicks from perceived threats. But I've heard them hold forth, perched on a snow-laced chair on the deck in the middle of winter.

Year-round exuberance from these handsome, bold birds is perhaps their most endearing trait.

I find myself variously bemused, charmed or inspired when I hear this bird singing away. At a time when I need patience, the Carolina wren reminds me that it is possible to have a song in one's heart all year long.

Whether it's building a home, raising chicks or surviving the new normal of weather extremes, Carolina wrens keep on singing. And that fact fills me with equal parts pleasure and even a bit of inspiration.

About Michael Burke

Mike Burke is an amateur naturalist who lives in Cheverly, MD.

Read more articles by Michael Burke

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