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A Wren House for a House Wren

House WrenI’ve done it before: recycled emails or Facebook posts here on my blog. This post was originally an email, sent yesterday to four recipients I felt might enjoy reading about my recent adventures in “desk-chair ornithology” (though technically I do not sit in a desk chair). It took a lot of eye-gazing to write this email, so I will re-use it. You may want to skip the off-topic “Preramble” and jump directly to the bird words. Only one of the photos used here was attached to the email. Click on any photo to see it in its full glory and to access wren-tastic bonus photos!



Greetings and salutations (irrelevant in this context).

I am sending this to Joann and Julie too, because though they have seen some of the wren action, I have been unable to relate some of my more interesting observations to them. I’m lucky to call attention to the birds with a croaked “wren!” After shaking my head to responses of “when what?” and “spin!?” I can usually point with my foot, or roll my eyes in some way suggestive of a frightened bank teller wordlessly calling a colleague’s attention to the gun in her ski-masked customer’s hand, and Joann or Julie will understand: it’s a bird (again). In this inefficient way, I have managed to share some of what I’ve seen. Both have witnessed the male wren packing twigs into this nestbox, for example.


The Art of Wren

The sine qua non of this post.

My view of the nestbox from my perch in the mancave (5/22/2018, Shoreview, MN)This is over-long–are you surprised?–and I will save the most interesting bit for last. ‘Cause that’s how I roll.
First of all, the nestbox you mounted on the fence outside of my mancave window is perfectly placed. While sitting at my computer, it is in full view, maybe a dozen feet from my eyes. It lies comfortably in my peripheral vision just to the left of my monitor. As I read or play Scrabble, the flitting of Troglodytes aedon wings frequently arrests my attention. A couple of weeks ago, I guess, I first observed a male House Wren “kicking the tires” on it.
A look at the nestbox showing it bursting at the bottom seam (a cooling vent) with twigs. (5/22/2018, Shoreview, MN)At first, I was somewhat skeptical about the suitability of the location. Trees above, but not much cover really. The top of the fence (just one foot above the top of the box) serves as a major east-west thoroughfare for chipmunks and red and gray squirrels. The small platform feeder hanging just by my mancave’s other window (14′ from the box) attracts a steady clientele of chickadees, nuthatches, grosbeaks, finches, and woodpeckers. Joann’s yard waste cans hard by, my mug just behind the glass, and the constant drone of Bob Dylan and others competing with territorial birdsong add to the negatives. If it’s really “location, location, location,” I thought, this isn’t ideal. But the real bird brain evidently liked it well enough.
He has been a very busy bird. For almost two weeks I watched it alternately singing his heart out from perches just above the box, and stuffing an enormous collection of twigs into it. Both Joann and Julie have marveled with me to see this little bird deftly wield six-inch sticks–almost twice his length–and maneuver them and himself through the small nest hole. He often had to change his grip several times before making it work. Usually he held the stick by an end in his tiny bill to make the fit.
A special engineering problem arose each time the twig included a fork, which was common. In the case of a V-shaped twig with long, nearly equal legs, the bird somehow managed to maintain his hold on the crotch of the piece while slipping himself into the box, from where he would pull smoothly through the aperture the whole twig as its flexible wooden legs scissored neatly together. A few of the drier twigs snapped and the “winning piece of the wishbone” made it inside, while the other dropped to the ground where it was later collected and used.
A wren at home. (6/28/2008, Little Canada, MN)One particularly knotty stick was Y-shaped and stout. Not flexible and not fragile. The wren grasped it by the single-tipped end and pulled it through until the forked end jammed. Then after an extended series of back-and-forth wiggles, twisting, and trial-and-error, he pulled it through. It did not appear to break, though to my eye it looked as if it would not have fit. After this protracted battle and heady success, the bird stood atop the box and sang his own praises for ten or fifteen minutes. I’m sure he was letting the ladies know what an intelligent, fit, and determined son-of-a-gun was building this kickin’ home in the neighborhood.
At least one lady was interested. Maybe four or five days into construction, I saw the male bring a female around for a look-see. She popped in and out a few times while its builder hung around outside and sang. I don’t know if he was singing nervously or not. I doubt it. I think he was proudly and confidently extolling the virtues of his construction, the neighborhood, and his genes. And he was warning away other males, of course.
I observed the female to be around for a few hours–maybe less–that morning, but then not for a couple of days. During this interval the male redoubled his efforts. More sticks, more singing. I wondered: had she rejected him or the nest (both?), or had she requested a remodel?
She returned, though, in two days. This time she entered the box a few times and then emerged to play a little catch-me-if-you-can with the male. Lots of chirping and (male) singing, and most tellingly, the sexy quivering shake of her tail feathers. Copulation occurred out of sight of my window–just out, I believe–and I expect that they’ve signed the mortgage on this place.
(An aside: A Baltimore Oriole pair were not as discreet as these wrens. Just outside of my other mancave window last week I watched the orioles frisking around. The female shook her tail feathers in a wanton fashion, and the male swooped in for a very brief “cloacal kiss.” I don’t know if she was disappointed or relieved by the brevity of it–I didn’t see any cuddling–but it was a voyeuristic thrill for me!)
Clearing out a box after a successful hatch. This pair won't get their cleaning deposit back. (7/4/2009, Little Canada, MN)So after what I assume was the consummation of an arrangement between the wrens I didn’t see much of the female again for a few days. The male kept cramming twigs into what must have been an already jam-packed nestbox. I started to wonder about this guy. An unbalanced hoarder? Or maybe it’s her. An impossible-to-please virago? Then yesterday afternoon I noticed or realized that now it is she carrying sticks into the box while he is singing nearby. The sticks she is bringing in are smaller, many less than an inch long. She’s putting on the finishing touches, filling in holes, and turning the house into a home. I’m over-anthropomorphizing by a long bit, of course, but nothing compared to noting that we expect to be grandparents again very soon! We can expect two to six hatchlings in two to three weeks.
I don’t know at which point the male stops singing. Is it when the female begins incubating the eggs, or is it when the hatchlings emerge? It is a meaningful question. It isn’t an unalloyed pleasure to host a wren pair. The loud singing begins around 5 AM and continues until after dusk. With a box this close to the house, sleeping-with-open-windows nights would test the mettle of the most enthusiastic bird nerd.
This individual on a branch near an active nestbox was chattering angrily and warning me against coming any closer. (6/28/2008, Little Canada, MN)The most interesting thing I’ve seen so far was the male angrily chasing away a gray squirrel. As I sat and watched from my front-row seat, a squirrel sat atop the post directly above the box. Two feet above its head in the branch of a shrubby tree the wren scolded: loud, angry, and possibly profane. But the squirrel seemed imperturbed and continued to sit, occasionally licking its feet. The wren took it up a notch by buzzing the squirrel with a couple of close flybys. When this failed to impress the squirrel the tiny House Wren proceeded to astonish me by twice dive-bombing and striking the squirrel on the top of the head! On the second of these attacks, through a partially-opened window I heard–bonk!–the impact of the blow from the 11-gram bird! The squirrel wasn’t as astonished as I was, but was now sufficiently perturbed to mosey away.



Springtime pastoral, with a sour final note.

We’ve had a fairly busy spring in the yard. The usual suspects remain, as you know. Over the phone, Joann described for you the warbler fallout we enjoyed on the 14th. I’m listening to a Great-crested Flycatcher singing right now; I heard the mewing of a Gray Catbird a few minutes ago. We had a lingering Tennessee Warbler singing in the yard this morning. An Indigo Bunting male loudly announces his arrival several times a day before descending to take advantage of our feeders and fountain. Baltimore Orioles complain to us as we sit on our deck, preferring to partake of our grape jelly and nectar feeders without our close company (ingrates!). Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, male and female, are regulars at our feeders now, as is one or more male Red-winged Blackbirds. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds showed up this week. Scads of Hermit Thrushes were here a month ago, and then one Swainson’s Thrush moved through last week. A Brown Thrasher was here (probably still is); he is stealthy and on the ground when here–this is a meal site (below our trees and feeders), not his singing territory. A pair of Broad-winged Hawks are nesting nearby and fly through our trees periodically. An Accipiter (probably a Sharp-shinned) crashes the party every so often. We hear a Great Horned Owl some nights.
I’m sure I’ve missed some. There are some missing too. We haven’t seen or heard Eastern Phoebes or Eastern Wood-Pewees; both are normally neighborhood regulars by this time. I haven’t heard any vireos here in the yard (though Joann has heard Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos on the trail). Mosquitoes are light, but it’s early. We are sure to be “blessed” later–last year our cup runneth over. Nevertheless, we hear a lot of talk about the lack of bugs in general over the past few years and we’ve noticed this as well. It’s a concern. The only critters doing well seem to be the deer, the ticks (not a coincidence), and the turkeys.
Twice in recent years we've had Carolina Wrens in our yard. Still uncommon here, these birds seem to be expanding their range to the north. Despite the possible implications of this, we'd be excited to provide a nestbox for a pair. (1/3/2015, Shoreview, MN)After an odd winter–warm and dry overall, but very cold and snowy late (and therefore long)–and now an odd spring–dry and warm. Latest forecast calls for four or five days of temperatures in the low 90s starting tomorrow. This is absurdly early! Meanwhile, the EPA and environmental regulations are being systematically destroyed.
I’ll stop now, at least a paragraph too late.
See attached.

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