Just a Little Brown Bird

by Norma A. Hubbard  (August 2020)

If we listen carefully to the sounds of birds and other wildlife, we begin to notice any different, or new sounds; sounds we don’t normally hear. One day while gardening I didn’t notice a new sound at first, but after a while it started to invade my peace and quiet and I thought, “What is that racket?” It wasn’t the usual bird sounds, this one was insistent, an alarm demanding my attention. I sat quietly, listened, and watched. It was a little brown bird and I didn’t have to wait long to learn the cause of the alarm, there was the fox! After that day, and almost without fail, I was ‘tuned in’ to the alarm. When I heard it, I knew I would soon see the fox. Now I think of House wrens (Troglodytes aedon) as the ‘little guard dogs’ of the bird world, but oddly enough they are known as the king of birds.

Although house wrens are tiny birds (about the weight of two quarters), they are fierce. I’ve watched swallows dive at wrens thinking they were attacking the wrens, however it turned out that the swallows were defending their nests from the wrens! Invading wrens can be the reason why some swallows, bluebirds and chickadees fail to reproduce. Wrens will destroy the eggs of other birds to take over a nest. When not pillaging, wrens will use nesting boxes or any other little nook or cranny they can find, as witnessed by Benoit Bleu. It was good of him to allow the wrens to stay in the tractor pipe, or maybe they had chased him away!

Male wrens will even challenge the males of nesting couples. If successful, he’ll toss out the eggs or even kill the hatchlings of the defeated male to begin his own family. House wrens may have 1-2 broods a season with 3 to 10 eggs per clutch. The temperature of the nest cannot be too hot or too cool or the eggs will die, so wrens tend to nest in shady areas. While the wrens did succeed in chasing the swallows out of the nesting boxes on the poles in the middle of my yard, I noticed they did not used them again. Instead they opted for the old boxes on the northern side of a shed. Couples will usually separate at the end of the summer and select new partners the following spring.

House wrens are very common all over North America. They are one of the most prolific of songbirds. Usually wrens prefer a combination of woods and open areas. Wrens, like many birds, like foraging among brush, so it is always good idea if you are trimming trees to leave a brush pile for the birds. Wrens are rarely seen seen in dense forests. They tend to eat more ground insects, such as beetles, caterpillars, earwigs, but will also eat some flies and leafhoppers. Wrens often include spider eggs among their nesting materials, so that when the spiders hatch, the spiders will eat mites that often infest their nests … and I imagine, after the spiders have finished cleaning up the nest, they become dinner for the wrens!

In folklore, there is a story about how long ago the birds wanted to decide on a king, so they had a competition to see who of the birds could fly the highest. All the birds tried, but it was the eagle who eventually flew higher than all the others. However, just as the eagle tired and began its descent, the little wren flew out of hiding from among the eagle’s feathers and flew higher, declaring itself king! Of course, the wren had cheated, and the larger birds decided to kill the wren, who would spend the rest of its days in hiding from the larger birds.

In addition, it is believed that the wrens caused the death of Saint Stephens by alarming his enemies to his hiding place, consequently, a hunting of the wren day is celebrated on St. Stephens’ Day, December 26. It is still celebrated in parts of Ireland, although no one actually kills wrens today. Ironically, it is also considered bad luck to kill a wren. Regardless of whether you love little wrens, or hate them, they are part of our area and quite infamous for just a little brown bird.

Sources: All About Birds, Cornell University [online];
LittleBrownWren.Com [online]
The Smithsonian Institution Magazine [online]