So go the lyrics of an old Irish folk tune. I’m not sure of the origin but you can look
it up on-line. Apparently, there was a contest among the birds in ancient times to
see who would be king, and the wren won. There is no question that wrens are
feisty, little perpetual motion machines. It seems the only time they are still is
when they are asleep.
Growing up on the Tantrough farm in the 1950s, we always had a pair of House
Wrens around the barn or outbuildings. They nested each year in a nest box that
my oldest brother made of cypress which hung on a large horizontal branch of the
spreading Crack Willow in front of the garage. Gradually over the years, this box
fell into disrepair and the House Wrens built a nest in an inside corner of the
machinery shed where two diagonal braces formed a “V”. The male House Wren
builds a platform of primarily sticks and woody twigs. Often the male will build
several platforms in different sites. If the female accepts his work and approves
the site, she builds the nest cup of dry grasses, rootlets, lined with feathers and
hair. When the nest is complete, she lays 5-8 eggs that are finely speckled with
My favorite thing about House Wrens is their cheerful, bubbling, jabbering song.
In the last decade the House Wren population at our farm has decreased severely.
I see only a few males in early June but have not been able to entice them to nest
in our boxes. I am uncertain if modern farming practices or residential
development is the cause. At my wife’s family home in Northern Virginia, they are
still blessed each summer with nesting House Wrens.
In cold weather, the House Wren leaves Delmarva and spends the winter in the
deep south from Florida to Texas.
Happily for us, when the chill winds arrive another much smaller wren arrives.
This is the Winter Wren.
It is not much bigger than a ping-pong ball, dark brown with a very short tail. If
examined closely they have a finely barred feathers on their sides. They can be
heard calling from briar thickets and brush piles before they are seen. When
startled they fly very low to the ground and dive into the next bit of cover. Like all
wrens they are never still, hence, difficult to photograph. This is the smallest of
our wrens, frequently seen but less well identified.
Although our Winter Wrens currently have returned to northern areas to breed, I
just recently learned that the summer breeding range extends southward from
the mountains of western Pennsylvania, into Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia,
and North Carolina at higher elevations. Although I have spent numerous hours
hiking and camping in those areas, I was not aware that they were present. So if
you are travelling there on your vacation, you should look for them.
The nest is well-hidden in the roots of upturned trees or stumps, in old
woodpecker holes, or rocky crevices. The cavity is filled with moss, fine grasses,
feathers, or hair. The eggs are clear white-dotted with reddish-brown.
My favorite wren is the Carolina Wren and it has moved into Delmarva in much
greater numbers than when I was a child.
The Carolina Wren is very adaptable and is, by far, our most common wren today.
Larger of the other wrens and a rich chestnut brown with a white eye-stripe. It
uses anything available for a nest site. I have seen their nests under the hood of a
under the covers of residential propane tanks, in a tote bag hanging in a shed, and
in a construction hard-hat hanging on the wall. Perhaps the most favored site of
all is in a hanging planter under your porch roof. I have read that they nest in bird
boxes, but they never have nested for me in a traditional bird box. Based on the
type of places they nest, I designed a special box for Carolina Wrens which they
used the very first season and every season since. Instead of the usual round hole
opening, the box is constructed with an overhanging awning type roof. (see
Also, I have not seen Carolina Wrens at my bird seed feeders. I have been told
that they will visit the mealworm feeders designed for bluebirds. The Carolina
Wren sings during every season of the year and is a permanent, non-migratory
resident on Delmarva. The song has been described as “teakettle, teakettle,
The nest itself is a mass of dead leaves, stems, and grasses lined with moss,
feathers, hair, or fine grass. The nests that I have seen are domed over with well-
weathered soft maple leaves with the entrance hole on the side. When first
discovered they don’t look like a bird nest at all, just a pile of dead leaves.
Commonly 5-6 eggs are laid, white to pale pink, with brown spots. The female
incubates the eggs. The male sometimes feeds the female on the nest. You can
see the Carolina Wren on all the Nature Preserve Lands.
As a final note about wrens, along our coast in the cattails, rushes, and reeds you
may see the Marsh Wren. It builds its nest of grasses woven to the stems of reeds
in an elongated ball-shape. The entrance hole is on the side. If you are visiting
some of our beaches, you should look for them.
I hope you can get outside with the longer daylight hours and warmer
temperature to enjoy the Nature Preserve Lands. Don’t forget to visit the Marvel
Saltmarsh Preserve at Slaughter Beach as well. Happy Hiking!
A Field Guide to Eastern Birds, by Robert Tory Peterson
A Field Guide to Birds’ Nests, by Hal H. Harrison
The Peterson Field Guide Series