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“The Wren, the Wren, the King of all birds...”

House Wren - Cornell photo

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.

Commercial Chalet Wren House in Va
Wren Box- Northern Va

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

brown dots.

House Wren - singing-Cornell photo

Box modified for House Wrens

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.

Wren Box - Note under eave vent slot

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.

Winter Wren-Cornell photo

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.

Winter Wren tail detail

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.

Carolina Wren

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

barbeque grill...,

Carolina wren nest in abandoned barbeque grill
Carolina Wren nest in toolbag

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


Carolina Wren Box

Weathered House wren box

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.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren - clothesline

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.

Marsh Wren

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!

Recommended reading:

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

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