House wrens can be nasty neighbors

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As my wife and I emerged from the woods a few evenings ago, I noticed a patch of blue on the trail ahead. In fact, I almost stepped on it.

It was a pure blue robin’s egg in seemingly pristine condition. We immediately scanned the branches over ahead, but could not find a nest. So we searched the ground. I thought perhaps wind from a recent storm had blown down a nest from an overhead crotch. Nothing.

Then I picked up the egg and examined it more closely. It was perfect, except for a small puncture on the side. It was as if someone had plunged an ice pick through the shell.

Aggressive creatures

This was the work of a house wren. House wrens are extremely territorial and aggressive. While most birds limit their aggression to members of their own species, house wrens are interspecifically antisocial. Within their small territory of an acre or so, they don’t like any other birds nesting nearby.

When house wrens find a nest in another cavity near their own, they often enter the cavity while it’s unoccupied and puncture the eggs. This kills the developing embryos and forces the “intruders” to nest again elsewhere.

Sometimes they then remove the egg from of the nest and drop it some distance away. House wrens usually confine this nasty behavior to other cavity nesters. It’s a way to “own” all the cavities within their territory. But sometimes they even puncture eggs in nests of open, cup nesting species. In addition to the robin egg I described earlier, I’ve seen eggs of phoebes, towhees, cardinals and song sparrows similarly destroyed.

I don’t know that other species avoid building nests near active house wren cavities, but they should. I suspect many people would agree with my wife’s opinion of house wren’s aggressive territorial behavior. She finds it “despicable.”

What house wrens do

But it is neither good nor bad. It’s just what house wrens do. It is just one of many tactics they use to gain an advantage in the intense competition for the relatively few nesting cavities available.

From a biological standpoint, I admire their ability to confront and frustrate larger competitors. House wrens are the most widespread of the nine species of wrens that inhabit the United States. They live in brushy old fields, shrubby backyards, and forest edges. Often they are the first occupants of a backyard bird house.

(If house wrens occupy nest boxes intended for bluebirds, the boxes are probably too close to dense vegetation. Remember, bluebirds prefer more open habitat.)

Drab and brown, house wrens are nondescript, but their explosive, bubbly song is distinctive, especially when sung at 5:30 a.m. outside the bedroom window.

House wrens usually attempt their first nest in early May, shortly after arriving in the spring. And nesting continues well into August. I’ve found active nests as late as Aug. 26.

Finding nests

House wren nests are easy to recognize in a nest box. At first it seems the nest is simply a jumble of small twigs. But deep in a back corner rests a tiny cup lined with rootlets, grass, leaves, animal fur, and a feather or two.

Here the female lays five to eight eggs and incubates them for 13 days. After the eggs hatch, both parents feed the nestlings for about 17 days until they are ready to fledge.

Two broods per season are typical, and some females raise three. Though house wrens are common and widespread, they are sometimes confused with Carolina wrens. House wrens are small, drab, explosive singers, and they arrive in early May. Carolina wrens are bigger, light below, chestnut brown above, have a prominent white eyeline, sing “Tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle!” and do not migrate.

And speaking of Carolina wrens, mine have disappeared. After about 10 years of increasing numbers, my Carolina wrens vanished in April.

In early April, I had three singing males around the yard. By the end of the month, they were all gone, and I haven’t found a single Carolina wren nest this year. Perhaps predators have had a good year and taken them all, but I wonder if any readers have observed a similar disappearance of Carolina wrens this year.

If you have, please let me know.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV, 26033 or by email via his website at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Scott, We recently noticed this last week we have house wrens dive bombing us. We go in or out our front door and they are chirping and attacking us. It’s even hard to take the dog outside to do her business. My daughter has been pecked . We are constantly ducking from them making contact with us. Is there anything we can do so the wrens don’t attack us? Thank You, Sincerely, Robin Albright

    • For the first years of moving into my extremely rural property, I also experienced a very aggressive male house wren who also dive-bombed me and I swear parted my hair on more than one occasion. He used to screech and swear at me and my dogs whenever we sat on our deck (which is usually all day every day in the summer, as I live in Canada and after a very long cold winter, we make the most of it) He was also a noisy little demon and would sing all day every day until he found a gal of his choice. I find their birdsong delightful, but this guy was after the prize! I’m guessing he either passed away of old age or met a fate of some sort, as less aggressive couples now occupy my nesting boxes. I find them the sweetest little creatures, and are definitely my favorite breed of bird. I can offer no advice I’m afraid for the aggressiveness you are experiencing – other than wear a hat!! Good luck! They are still so worth having around! ;)

  2. I am experiencing my first aggressive wrens this season. They take turns guarding the house. Today I saw them attack a hummingbird at its feeder. I was highly annoyed! About ready to move the wren house as I enjoy the hummers much more. I am waiting for one to attack me or my dog….then I go out with a broom in the air and war has begun.

  3. I have a pair of Carolina wrens that come to my porch during the day and eat all the bugs around the eyes of the porch and out of the plants. Every night at 7:45 he flies up to the corner eve and sleeps until dawn with his face in the porch corner like he’s in time out. It’s the cutest thing and the first season this has happened to me in 6 years of living in this house. The last two nights he hasn’t come in for bed time so I’m wondering if he was just waiting on babies to hatch somewhere to begin his father duties. I miss him! I hope he’s ok. I’d love to know if others have experienced this.

  4. I had a bluebird house set apart. From the wren house . the wren pecked the eyes out of the baby bluebirds . I was sick. what am I too do?

  5. we have a bird that does this,,,leaves at light and and 7:30 darkness comes and sleeps in the umbrella cloth pouch ,,,,, with it’s head down , like it is in time out …

  6. I have a wren in my porch in UK too, clicks at 5am, sings loudly intermittently for a few seconds in the middle of the night. Last night the light was out and i came in with a torch, this scared him into flying out into the dark, but sure enough after the light went on he or his mate was clicking at 5:30am in the porch again. I even held him or his pal in my hand when they got trapped once, they are incredible close-up.

  7. I have quite a few boxes on my 11 acres and the only birds that cause complete havoc are the house wrens so bad that I don’t allow them to nest in my boxes Any more because they killed chickadee babies in all of my boxes.I felt so bad so I am using a wren guard when the chickadees start the nest building and I place the dee’s box close to my house and away from the brush and it has helped.

  8. We had eastern bluebirds in our nest boxes for about five years, until the house wrens showed up.
    They killed the bluebird babies, and dragged them out of the nests. They did the same with the tree swallows; killed the babies, and one of the adults. Now the bluebirds and swallows no longer come here. We kept putting the nest boxes out, but got nothing but wrens, so, no more boxes. We refuse to help the wrens breed. I know they’re just doing their thing, but I don’t have to like it…or them!

  9. wrens are taking over and ! help ! I lost my phoebes; the mother actually raised the babies as her own but was confused I must say – we all were until I delved deeper into the wrens behavior

    I just this past year got bluebirds and I think they were interfering with the amount of phoebes around but not aggressively like the wrens. They need to go, how do I do that humanly? We need answers. I can’t stand their loud voices. I want my phoebes back. I don’t even hear many thing year. And the phoebe that was here is just hanging around like what gives. She lost her first nest to wrens; I don’t want to lose another one.

  10. I have the same exact problem as Vicki, PLEASE we need answers! These wrens have got to go. I wonder if the plastic owls would help. I miss seeing and hearing all of my other bird friends that use to hang around and eat and sing and use my bird bath. This is just terrible. Thanks for understanding and helping with this matter.

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