Aug 23, 2017 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, August 2017

How to Appease House Wrens

House wrens can be no laughing matter when it comes to the other birds trying to nest in your backyard.
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Dear Birdsquatch:

Last spring a pair of house wrens took over a bluebird house in my backyard. I suspect them in the untimely demise of a clutch of Carolina chickadee eggs, which I found pierced and dropped below the nest box the chickadees were using. I've heard that house wrens are not good neighbors to other cavity nesting birds. Is this true? And if so, what can I do to discourage the house wrens?

—Lee T., Fairfax, Virginia

Dear Lee,

I can tell that you "Dear Lee" love your backyard birds! House wrens can be no laughing matter when it comes to the other birds trying to nest in your backyard. Here's why: In spring and during the summer nesting season, a male house wren will look for likely cavities in which to nest. This usually means a wren house or another birdhouse, or a cavity in a tree. Unlike Carolina wrens, which will nest in a wider variety of spots—in the clothespin bag, in an old shoe in the garage, in a hanging basket—house wrens are pickier, in my experience. Whereas a Carolina wren will make a nest in close proximity to humans, house wrens prefer to be farther away, often in a cavity in or near woodland.

Let's go back to our prospecting male house wren. He will go around your yard inspecting all the potential cavities. Then he will start filling the best ones with short sticks, which is the house wren's preferred nesting material. Then the male will squire his mate around to all the sites so she can choose one. Once she does, they team up to build the full stick nest, and then they get busy making babies. If another species attempts to nest nearby, the wrens may destroy that bird's nest or eggs, or even toss small nestlings out of the nest. What the house wren lacks in physical size it makes up for in aggressive territoriality.

I like house wrens, even if they can be the anti-Welcome Wagon to their bird neighbors. Their burbling song is a cheery sound in spring and summer across most of North America. I can't explain why they try to hog all the nest cavities, nor why they will destroy the nesting attempts of other birds. Perhaps it's because growing up in a nest of hard sticks is so uncomfortable, it just makes them cranky. More likely they've evolved to be super competitive in the war for nesting cavities.

Here's what you can do to appease the house wrens. Give them nest boxes with a wren-sized entrance hole of one inch in diameter. This will prevent all other birds (except chickadees) from using the wren box. Place these boxes along a wooded edge or slightly inside the woods, making sure the box is mounted on a pole that is baffled to guard against predators. Place all of your other nest boxes in more open settings, which house wrens dislike. This will establish a natural separation between the wrens and your other nesting birds.

One other thing: If a house wren has started a nest in a box, don't remove it. I've seen house wrens go on a nest-destroying rampage after their own nest is destroyed. I guess misery loves company.



About Howard Youth

Howard Youth is a freelance natural history writer and Bird Watcher's Digest field editor. He is the author of two BWD backyard booklets: Enjoying Cardinals More and Enjoying Squirrels More (or Less!)

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