Some birds make me smile.
For instance, I love all warblers, but the common yellowthroat is particularly agreeable. The male’s bright throat and black mask are appealing, but it’s the bird’s willingness to meet humans on their own level that tickles me. While other birds remain aloof, looking down upon birders from lofty perches, this bush dweller stays low.
By that standard, wrens make me smile. They are good, down-to-earth birds, shunning the treetops. Every wren I ever met was predisposed to welcome me face-to-face. They are small songbirds and are generally a nondescript streaky brown. The wren’s dull color disguises a vibrant personality. Wrens are universally bold, inquisitive and noisy. Their vocalizations can be quite complex. Wrens have a distinctive habit of cocking their tails.
Wrens enjoy a variable diet, gleaning insects, spiders and invertebrates, as well as a few seeds and berries. Their foraging habits keep them near the ground, and the only time I have seen any wren high in a tree was when it was singing on territory.
The name has been passed down from Old English, with some irony. There are about 80 wren species in the world, but only one of them is actually a resident of Old England. The Eurasian wren is simply called wren over most of the continent.
There are five species of wren in Maine. Of these, the winter wren is most abundant, spanning all of Maine’s forestland. It prefers cool, moist, thickly wooded areas with lots of downed logs and branches. It pokes around the tangled forest floor, virtually unnoticeable to humans except when it sings. This tiny wren bellows the most powerful and melodious tune in the Maine woods.
It is fantastic that a bird no bigger than your thumb can produce such a song. Winter wrens don’t migrate far in the offseason, spending the cold months in the Middle Atlantic States. They are back by early April and the singing begins soon after.
In 2010, experts determined that winter wrens in the northwest were a separate species, a taxonomic split creating the pacific wren. They sing a slightly different song and refuse to interbreed with birds that sing the winter wren song.
The house wren is a suburban bird, comfortable around people. It’s a backyard fussbudget in Bangor neighborhoods. The broad range of the house wren extends from Canada to the southern tip of South America, wherever there are people. House wrens rely on cavities and nest boxes, but they will even choose front porch flower pots, shoes, watering cans — whatever offers cover. Like most wrens, they are more likely to scold humans than fear them.
The Carolina wren is a southern bird that has expanded its range northward, especially as the climate warms. It is now commonplace in southern Maine, and a handful are present in suburban eastern Maine. They are as loud as cardinals, with an easily recognizable teakettle-teakettle-teakettle song. They are larger than most wrens, with a distinctive white eyebrow. Carolina wrens are barely migratory, driven south by overly frigid weather, but little else. They are common in Boston suburbs in winter. In Maine, long cold spells discourage their return, and I’m expecting fewer this summer.
Marsh wrens are tiny songbirds that cluster in cattail wetlands. They flit secretively through the reeds, but their chatter is noisy and sometimes goes all night. Marsh wrens are declining in the northeast because of habitat loss, but there are still places around town to find them. I get an earful of chatter whenever I paddle over to the inlet of Pushaw Lake, and they are in the cattails of Penjajawoc Marsh, accessible from Essex Street along Bangor Land Trust trails.
I’ve included the sedge wren as a Maine bird, even though they are scarce. They are very similar to marsh wrens but prefer the grassy sedges of marshy edges. This wren’s nomadic habits bring a few into Maine occasionally, and then none may be seen for several years. Even when present, the sedge wren can be hard to view because it prefers to run through the grasses to avoid intruders, rather than flit away in the air. During a visit to Texas last December, I found both marsh and sedge wrens together at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, making for easy comparison.
Bewick’s, cactus, canyon and rock wrens of the west display all of the same bold, loud, ground-hugging qualities of our eastern wrens — willing to look you in the eye with an honest gaze.
I smile every time.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.