Birdhouses, bird feeders and songbirds- all these are favorite garden "decor." I was going to sing the praises of my faithful house wrens, but I've had to change my tune...
Sounds of the garden- The "scritches" and "snips" of my yard work are accompanied by a burbling, chirpy song from a plain brown bird. Mr. House Wren works harder than I do. He's nest building, and he's performing the songbird equivalent of Match.com. House wrens are happy to nest in suburban areas across most of the continental United States. Unfortunately they aren't always good neighbors.
My yard is visited by two different wren species, the House Wren and the Carolina Wren. If you live east of the Mississippi, and have wrens with long white "eyebrows" that are always asking for cheeseburgers or teakettles, they're Carolinas. Rest easy and enjoy their company. You might like to visit the Carolina Wren entry at Whatbird.com for a drawing and description, and to hear Carolina Wren songs. (That'll explain the odd "cheeseburger" reference.)
Doot-dee-doo, I'm just hanging out
I had decided to write about house wrens, not Carolinas. I expect the majority of Dave's Gardeners have some experience with house wrens. They have no fancy markings to draw your eye; instead, these itty bitty birds sing an oversized song, a loud string of notes that echoes clear across the yard. If you watch one sing, you'll swear he could bust a gut. How can such a miniscule body produce such a racket? And he'll repeat that song many, many, many times. Here's the house wren link at Whatbird.
Wrens eat insects. That's good.
Pintsized but bold, house wrens can be a gardener's pal. Like all wrens, and many other garden birds, they'll stay busy all day eating lots of insects. And they are very good at keeping you informed as to the whereabouts of your pet cat. They'll watch Kitty like a hawk, scolding her for hours.
How's this for a fixer-upper house?
Twenty years ago, my friend's dad gave me one of his handmade wren houses. He assured me it had the right design to attract wrens. I hung it in my new yard and sure enough, that year I hosted the first of many generations of house wrens. House wrens are common users of birdhouses. They'll often use a small swaying house hung from a branch or wire, while most birds prefer a firmly attached house. These wrens are flexible, even inventive in their nest building. Pretty much whatever I have hung up in my yard is soon crammed with twigs. That's a sign that Mr. House Wren has made a nest. He'll make several in a relatively small area, and then try to tempt a Mrs. into choosing one. Even a large gourd birdhouse will be loaded with twigs until the desired size nesting chamber space is left.
So, what about the not-house-wren-houses?
When I went looking for wren pictures for this article, I discovered some dirty little secrets of the innocent-appearing house wrens. These itty-bitty bullies have a great big attitude, and will tenaciously defend their chosen territory from other birds, like they defend themselves from that cat. House wrens can, and do, pierce (kill) the eggs of their close neighbors. They even manhandle those neighbors' eggs or hatchlings right out of their nests! This means that you won't have a chance to host other songbirds, like bluebirds or chickadees, while the house wrens rule. House wrens behavior, combined with modern America's suburban development, causes real concern for the population of some other native songbirds.
Are you talkin' to me? Are YOU talking to ME?
What's an enlightened bird-loving gardener to do? Since the house wren is a native bird and natural resident, it is illegal to directly harm them. Frustrating or confusing the house wrens is considered fair play in this game. Feel free to decorate with birdhouses with blocked or false, painted entrance holes. And since even house wrens can be particular about their accomodations, biologists have experimented with management techniques that discourage house wrens. Truly dedicated bluebird enthusiasts employ these methods with good results. Another choice is to modify a basic birdhouse and render it less useful to the house wren. One of the more successful modifications is a wren guard. In essence, it's a roof extension that blocks the house wrens' view of the house entrance hole. This seems to be enough to make the wren move on, and does not deter the other less aggressive songbirds. Please click to visit Sialis.org where you can see a sketch of the wren guard, and also read in more detail about house wren biology. I tried to "google" up a source of ready-made, wren-deterrent bird nesting boxes, but couldn't. That may mean my searching skills are not the best (certainly a possibility) or that these guarded birdhouses just aren't widespread commercially.
This gourd will see nothing but house wrens at this point.
It's midsummer now, and my house wrens are still around. I heard three singing at one time the other day. And have not heard chickadees or Carolina wrens in my yard for a while. It might be time for a change.
Photo credits: (fellow DG members generously shared these for my use. Thank you!)Thumbnail photo by 2dCousinDaveSky-background photo by Mrs_EdOpen-beak pose photo by linthicumOther photos are the author's. Websites linked in the article are: Sialis.org ~ Home page states "This website was developed as a resource for people interested in helping bluebirds and other native cavity-nesters survive and thrive." Whatbird.com ~ All about birds, featuring a unique " search engine used to identify birds of North America."
About Sally G. Miller
I grew up playing in the Maryland woods, and would still do it often if life allowed! Graduate of University of Maryland, my degree is in Agriculture. Gardens and natural areas give me endless opportunity for learning and wonder. Naturally (pun intended) my garden style leans towards the casual, and my cultural methods towards organic. I like to try new plants, and have "some of everything" in my indoor and outdoor gardens. Thanks go to my parents for passing along their love of gardening and nature, and my husband and kids for being patient when I get lost in the garden.