This spring, a pair of Carolina wrens has claimed my backyard patio and deck as their territory. They jealousy guard each square foot of concrete and treated wood from other birds, squirrels, my dogs and cats, and sometimes the owner of the whole shebang – me.
They are nesting, of course. I watched the entire courting process through the kitchen window. The male perched on the back of a lawn chair and sang a wren overture of love and devotion after the pair’s dawn insect hunt in the nooks and crannies of the patio.
The mating was accomplished in the blink of an eye. Afterward, the male puffed up like a feathered tennis ball and trilled threats and challenges to other wrens in the neighborhood. The small birds immediately began building a nest in my whiskey barrel planter, changed their minds and opted for a nursery behind the gas BBQ grill, then to my relief shifted to a forsythia bush overgrown with honeysuckle vines (that I had meant to clean out last fall, but forgot about).
The thick honeysuckle gives the nest a measure of protection from predators, and the wren parents have a 360-degree view of the lawn. They also benefit from being close to a mockingbird nest. Any cat or snake that approaches – even my dogs – are subject to kamikaze dive-bombing runs by the larger songbirds. It’s a neat form of insurance for the wrens.
I started checking the nest to keep tabs on the new family. At this writing, three small, pale brown eggs had been deposited. According to my wife’s bird books, the female probably will lay two or three more.
The nest itself is a messy construction, somewhat shaped like a round sack with an opening on the side. I noticed the parent wrens had used animal hair to insulate the sides. On closer inspection, the building material turned out to be fur from my retriever that I had cleaned from the dog brush.
Of course, any time I approach the forsythia bush, the wrens get stirred up. They scold me, probably cursing me roundly with the familiar chirr-chirr-chirr warning cry. This brings the mockingbirds swooping to see what the fuss is about. Mockers don’t mind taking on humans. They’re not protecting the wrens. It’s a territorial behavior. The smaller birds certainly don’t seem to have a problem with the mockingbirds strafing a lumbering, giant interloper.
The wrens have definite boundaries within which they patrol and hunt. These birds have claimed, in addition to the deck and patio, a retaining wall, picnic table, rock garden, the driveway and basement garage area, my shed, the woodpile, my vegetable garden, and all the landscaping around the house.
These are little birds with large attitudes. They are self-assured, courageous and pugnacious when necessary. Woe be to robins and cardinals that get too close to the nest. Even their bodily poses indicate a no-nonsense approach. Male and female each keep their tails cocked, like they’re strutting on parade.
Unlike the hummingbirds and chickadees, the wrens won’t come around when people are using the deck. The hummers and chickadees, I have read, imprint on humans after a while. As long as my guests and I are still and non-threatening, both species go about their business (feeding) without fear. But I can hear the Carolina wrens scolding from the woodpile or fence row when neighbors come over for dinner and we lounge outside.
For me, Carolina wrens also have an association with wild turkey hunting. The bird’s trilling song at dawn is one of the first woodland wake-up calls in Tennessee. Hearing the wrens means I need to sit down and listen. In only a minute or two, the gobblers will rattle the trees with deep chuck-a-luck-a-luck roost calls, almost like they are relying on cues from the wrens to wake up and declare dominance over their realm.
My father often asked what type of wild bird we would like to be, if we could choose to assume a mantle of feathers and grow wings. His choice was a male bluebird: colorful, an excellent singer, and a sure sign of spring. My wife opted to be a hummingbird: tiny iridescent speedster whose food is flower nectar. Our sons typically chose hawks or eagles, and would run around flapping their arms and screaming like ferocious birds of prey.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Carolina wrens: birds of attitude that don’t back down, despite the size of the foe.