Sep 8, 2015 | Featured Web Article

House Wren Nesting Material

Most common and vocal in summer, found skulking through thick underbrush and along woodland edges, the house wren moves (and calls) almost constantly.

This story by Greg C. Greer originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Bird Watcher's Digest. Greg C. Greer owns Greg Greer Enterprises, Inc., which is involved with environmental education, eco-travel consulting, and monitoring of peregrine falcons in Atlanta, Georgia. He is an avid naturalist and photographer.

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The melodic song of the house wren is one of the sweetest sounds a spring morning can bring. In my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, the house wren is not a common breeding bird. In 25 years, the plain little brown birds have nested in my yard only three times. Although their beautiful songs certainly make up for their drab appearance, their spunky attitude is also something to admire. First-year adults can be particularly amusing. I once spent an entire afternoon watching a house wren wrestle twigs into the small entrance hole of a bird box. It took several comical hours for the little songster to figure out how to correctly angle its head so the twig would enter the hole end-first. At sunset the ground below the bird box was littered with discarded twigs, and I was left with a lasting impression of that determined bird slamming those twigs perpendicularly across the hole.

My passion for watching birds has led me to many wonderful observations, discoveries, and surprises.

Every spring I can typically expect to count about seven bird species nesting in different boxes of various sizes around my yard. At the end of the nesting season I take down each box for any necessary repairs and a thorough cleaning. I often find bird-house refugees during this process. Usually it's a flying squirrel. Other times it is a black rat snake, gray tree frogs, or insects, including earwigs, wasps, and the occasional spiders. I once found the remains of a ring-necked snake in an eastern bluebird nest; I have no idea how it happened to be there, but it was a spectacular find.

One discovery, however, tops them all. As the nesting season ended, I set out to clean and repair a box used by a pair of house wrens. A single brood had fledged from the box, and the wren family had dispersed soon after. After removing the box from its pole mount and taking it to my workshop, I began to inspect the nesting material. How fascinating! Mixed in with the expected twigs and other materials was an array of feathers. Not house wren feathers, but feathers of all different colors and sizes. One by one, I laid them out and eagerly tried to identify the different species represented. I was astonished. In addition to the 12 species I could identify, there were several more feathers that remained a mystery. Among the species represented in the feather collection: eastern bluebird, northern cardinal, eastern screech-owl, downy woodpecker, ruby-throated hummingbird, wood duck, Carolina chickadee, blue jay, tufted titmouse, eastern towhee, and red-shouldered hawk.

All of these species nest in or around my yard, but I still found it incredible that the wrens found so many feathers from such a wide variety of birds. This was a remarkable accomplishment. It would be challenging for a person to find feathers from 12 species of birds in just a few weeks, but the wrens had accomplished it. My hope for the next year was that the same pair of wrens would return to the yard—it might provide evidence that one or both birds in this pair had a particular interest in feathers as nesting material. Unfortunately, I have not had house wrens successfully nest in my yard since then, so my investigation has stalled. As they say, there's always next year. Here's hoping this nesting season brings the return of the house wren's captivating song and perhaps another cherished memory.

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  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
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