Well before sunrise in early May it started: a loud chattering, burbling, cascading torrent of notes. From just outside our bedroom window, the birdsong filled the early morning air. It would continue virtually all day and go on well into the summer.
Our avian alarm clock was at it again. The house wren, one of America’s most well-known songsters, was busy attracting a mate and establishing his territory. His warbling, trilling song would periodically change to a harsh, raspy scold when anything (or anybody!) approached his prized mate or nest.
House wrens (Troglodytes aedon) are small, compact birds. Just 4 inches long and weighing a mere 0.4 ounces, the bird has a remarkably loud voice. The native Chippewa’s name for the bird translates to “making big noise for its size.” That’s an accurate description and one of the reasons so many nonbirders know this tiny dynamo: When males are around, they are hard to ignore.
The house wren’s big voice is certainly its most obvious field attribute. Otherwise, the rather drab brown little bird would be easy to miss.
They breed almost anywhere there are trees and shrubs. House wrens can be found throughout the Western Hemisphere, from Canada to Chile. Many of the populations are resident, while others are short-distance migrants.
Ornithologists count 31 separate subpopulations. They inhabit a larger range from north to south than any other songbird in the hemisphere.
Our nesting house wrens were of the eastern variety. They breed from New Brunswick across to Ontario in Canada, and down to Tennessee and over to the Carolinas. In October, they head to the southeastern United States, Mexico or Caribbean for winter.
Light brown with a pale gray chin, neck and belly, eastern house wrens have dark-and-light barring on the wings and tail as well as the back part of their undersides. A hint of cinnamon on the rump and tail are the only concessions to color. A flat head and a tail that is often cocked up accentuate the bird’s compact build.
House wrens from other regions look similar, but differ slightly in coloration, with darker birds in cool, humid areas and paler versions in warm, arid regions.
The sexes look alike, and they have similar plumage year-round: no flashy breeding feathers for these birds.
Our backyard birds were using a birdhouse we had attached to the back deck of our former house in Cheverly, MD. Over the years, that nest box has been home to several generations of house wrens and at least one family of house sparrows.
House wrens have an affinity for birdhouses. If one is not available, they will use cavities in trees or snags, crevices in rocky outcroppings, and so on. They will also use lots of other human “structures,” from the pockets of work coats left outside, clothespin baskets, buckets or just about any object that affords them a space to build their nests.
Nest construction starts with the male. He will place a few sticks in possible nesting sites, then show his prospective mate his handiwork. If she is impressed, she will select the best option and further nest construction commences. Both birds work on the nest, with the female putting the finishing soft lining in place: spider webs, hair, feathers, fluff from some seeds and so on.
Many eastern house wrens have two broods annually. They typically don’t use the same nest and often don’t have the same partner for nest number two. Each nest will have six or seven eggs that are incubated by the female for 12–13 days.
After they hatch, the chicks, which are born helpless, stay in the nest for another 17–18 days. Both parents feed the young an assortment of beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, ants, and moths and butterflies.
Although they produce many offspring annually, house wrens have a high mortality rate and their longevity is short — probably about 6 years.
Current estimates show a very slight annual increase in numbers. They boast a healthy worldwide population that Partners in Flight estimates at 160 million birds.
In late June, after the first brood of our backyard birds had fledged, we awoke one morning to the familiar cascading song of a male house wren. The birdhouse was about to serve as home to a second brood. The process started with the male pulling out much of the dirty nesting material left behind by family number one. He would add new sticks in a matter of days.
My wife and I were in the process of cleaning out our own house, getting ready to move to a smaller home. The house wren’s second nesting was an especially bittersweet affair for us. We had lived at the Cheverly house for nearly 30 years. This would be our final time hosting a new clutch of birds.
Our yard had seen lots of birds over the years and given us a host of avian memories. But it was time to turn the house over to a younger set. A new generation was waiting.
The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.