The Chippewas bestowed a name on the House Wren that meant something like “making big noise for its size.” (O-du-na’-mis-sug-ud-da-we’-shi) Anyone who has had one of these birds nesting nearby would certainly agree. And while its relative, the Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus), may take the prize for being slightly louder, the House Wren makes up for it by being more persistent.
Male House Wrens appear to sing constantly in the Spring and Summer. (Females may sing as well however, only occasionally.) Their song has been described as “stuttering” and “bubbling”. If you have to listen to it all day, it’s more like “annoying”. Still, a bird has to do what a bird has to do. Using its song, the House Wren sets out his territory and attracts females to it. That territory can cover up to ½ acre.
Returning from their winter range in the southern states, Mexico, and northern Central America, the older males show up here a couple weeks before the females and the yearling males. We usually hear one around April 20th. That’s my son’s birthday. After that, it seems like there are wrens everywhere, even if it is only one.
Singing continuously, the male rushes from place to place, checking out every possible nesting site and claiming it for his own. There is actually quite a bit of site fidelity among House Wrens, so the one that shows up may well have been there before. Being capable of living up to seven years adds to those odds.
House Wrens are cavity nesters. Around my place, this means bird houses. However, these birds frequently improvise. Tin cans, flowerpots, car radiators, boots, and the pockets of clothes hanging out to dry have all been used. My favorite painting of House Wrens is one done by John James Audubon. His birds are nesting in a hat!
When my children were young, I put up a swing set out back for them to play on. It was one of those types with the hollow metal poles. I was pushing someone on the swing when we heard a faint scratching sound. Zeroing in on it, I lifted the bottom of one of the supports and out popped four baby wrens, fully fledged and ready to go. I wondered how long they had been in there.
Back to the beginning though. After arriving and setting out his territory and locating every possible nest cavity, the male wren rushes about frantically trying to fill them all up with sticks. This is no doubt an effort to cut down on the competition. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to particularly care whether any of these nest cavities are already occupied. Woodpeckers can usually take care of themselves, however, the nests of smaller birds often fall victim. Male House Wrens may peck holes in eggs or even kill young birds of other species. Needless to say, this doesn’t make them popular around the avian neighborhood. It doesn’t go over that well with birdwatchers either.
However, as my sister-in-law is fond of saying, “It is what it is.” At least when the female arrives on the scene, she adds a bit of taste to the nesting process. Her main concern isn’t with how loud her suitor sings, but with the quality of his territory. (Of course, a male who sings well can hope to maintain a larger territory.) She sets about examining the real estate and once she decides on where they are going to set up housekeeping, throws out a lot of the sticks the male has stuffed in there and starts working in some finer materials (grasses, plant fiber, feathers, etc.) to make a deep cup where the eggs will rest.
Six to eight eggs are laid. In appearance these are white with lots of reddish brown spots. The female does all the incubation. When hatching occurs in about two weeks, both partners feed the young. Grasshoppers, beetles, stink bugs, leafhoppers, all sorts of caterpillars, and spiders may appear on the menu. Fledging takes place about seventeen days later.
Most House Wren couples raise two broods per season. Males have a wandering eye, however, and may mate with more than one female on territory. It can all be rather daunting when you think about it. That is also why, when sitting on your porch in summer you may feel inundated with wrens. The chatter produced by the parents to keep the young ones in line can be quite distracting. This is why I always breathe a sigh of relief when the House Wrens finally quiet down.
The quiet time may have something to do with their annual molt. This takes place in late summer. Their new plumage is darker and grayer. Most head south in September and October. On their winter territories, House Wrens tend to be rather quiet and inconspicuous. When the birds return here again in spring they are lighter in color and more brownish. This is not due to another molt, but to the erosion of their original darker feather tips.
The House Wren is probably much more abundant today that in the past. Their favored territory is along edge habitats. Farming and logging has helped them considerably, not to mention housing construction.