Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, September 29, 2013

In Praise of Carolina Wrens

Dawn, Cape May. As the first light appears at Higbee Beach, I am walking quickly up the road to where I know others will be awaiting the morning flight, that strange phenomenon when southbound birds find themselves over Delaware Bay at dawn and so turn and head north to land, in this case Higbee.

As I walk along I hear the pleasant song of the Carolina wren. In fact, I hear several.
Carolina wren, Cape May, NJ  (Margo D. Beller)

In fact, during the full day of birding my husband and I had in Cape May a couple of weeks ago, the bird we heard the most was the Carolina wren. Every single place we stopped had at least one singing, and the songs were usually different. These wrens are loud for such little birds, and after minutes of singing one song, they switch to another.

9 a.m., Morris Plains. I am walking along a street in my NJ town to the convenience store where I buy the morning paper. It is a cool morning, color beginning to appear in the maples, the first sign that summer is over and autumn is here. As I walk I listen for what birds might be around. I hear chips and cheeps and some of the familiar contact calls of the titmice and white-breasted nuthatches but the only song I hear is the Carolina wren's.

When people ask me what is my favorite bird, I always say the black-capped chickadee and the cardinal are tied for first, with the Carolina wren a close second.

The chickadee likes to poke around, isn't put off by people and has an appealing "Hey, sweetie" song. It is rambunctious and flies in small flocks, or in ones and twos. The cardinal, by contrast, is a much bigger bird, the male a bright red, the female brown with red in the crest, bill and tail. Once the young are gone you usually see pairs. They call to each other. They mate for life and in spring the male will feed the female a seed and it looks like they are kissing.

But the Carolina wren is a close second because no matter what season, it will sing. Unlike its smaller cousin the house wren, it does not leave when summer ends. Like a lot of birds formerly considered "southern" - the mockingbird, cardinal and redbellied woodpecker immediately come to mind - the Carolina wren is now a fixture of New Jersey, even northern New Jersey where I live. In fact, one year, in the west-central part of rural New Hampshire where my brother-in-law lives with his family, I found a Carolina wren investigating the overhang of his roof, perhaps looking for bugs or a possible nest site. These birds will nest just about anywhere.
Carolina wren at my feeder. (Margo D. Beller)
Other birds sing in the spring when they are asserting themselves, trying to draw a mate and setting up territories. But once nesting starts, the birds go silent and then it is soon autumn and most of them fly south for the winter. The Carolina wren also goes silent at nesting time, but once the young are out the singing resumes, and I've heard these little brown birds with the yellowish breast in the middle of winter.

As long as there aren't too many freezing days or too much snow, or as long as I provide seed and suet in my feeders, this bird will survive to breed another day. I don't see them as often as I hear them, but it is always a treat when I do and I am always honored when they come to the feeders.

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