If you’ve been following along for some time now, and have a good memory, you may recall that one of my many other job incarnations, back 15 years ago now, was bird field research. This went on for several years, but it started in the mountains of Arizona, about an hour out of Flagstaff. I (along with about 20 other people) was tasked with “nest searching”. This meant watching birds, figuring out where their nests were, and keeping track of said nest to document success or failure. One of the 26 birds nests we were searching for was the House Wren. I came to love this little bird over the course of the season. Tiny. Boisterous. Nesting opportunistically wherever they could find space. Males and females impossible to tell apart.
One of the primary things nest searchers watch for is a bird carrying nesting material. It’s a sure fire tip off that there is a nest nearby, and that you’ve caught it early enough to be able to document the entire nesting cycle. Except for House Wrens. Male House Wrens will start 3 or 4 nests, carrying big sticks into cavities and singing their little heads off. They will easily stuff a 12 or 18 inch cavity or nest box completely full of sticks. They make nest searchers crazy.
The female wren observes her potential mate, with all of his frantic building, and eventually chooses the site she likes best. She then finishes decorating it to her liking, using small twigs, grass, hair, and what have you, to create a safe place for her eggs. Then she lays one egg a day for up to 10 days (7 was the average on the Arizona site) and starts to incubate. Two weeks later the eggs hatch, and both the male and female begin frantically feeding their brood. Fifteen days later, everyone is big enough to fly, and off they go. In a good year, the couple will repeat this routine twice.
House Wrens have been documented to build nests in the large pockets of clothing hanging too long on a laundry line, in old boots, in drain pipes…you get the idea. They aren’t able to excavate a hole in a tree on their own, so they are at the mercy of what nature (or people) can provide in terms of a cavity to call home.
We’ve had a House Wren pair in the yard for a month or so. I immediately recognized the bubbly enthusiastic song, and felt bad that I hadn’t gotten around to putting up some nesting boxes. Every time I was out in the yard and heard them, I’d say “Hello, little wrens”. My produce washing station sits under a large crab apple tree in our side yard, and I often heard them flitting about over my head. I’d be washing spinach or lettuce or kale, and say “hello little wren”. Occasionally I’d even catch a glimpse of one or both of them.
Then, this Wednesday, I’m washing produce for market and talking to the wren when I see him (or her). And in its mouth is an insect. An insect in a bird’s mouth, unless eaten immediately, is a dead give away that they are feeding babies. But where the heck could the nest be? There are no cavities in the apple tree. There are no cavities in the yard anywhere, really. And then I watch this bird, with its beak full of bugs, flit INTO the big horse skull that is hanging on our fence. Well I’ll be darned. They’ve nested in the empty brain pan of a horse skull! How cool is that!
Trying to photograph the parents is a serious challenge. They flit about, and flit about, and then nose dive into the hole before I have a chance to even focus the camera. But I did finally manage to get a few pictures. And in a few weeks it will all be over. But if they are successful, perhaps they will nest in the same spot again later in the season. And by next year, I promise to put up a few nest boxes.
If you are interested in building nest boxes for wrens, bluebird boxes work just fine. Just make sure that the opening is only 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Any larger and you’ll just be providing additional nesting space for European Starlings, and we have enough of this non-native species already. You might even get lucky and have a chickadee nest in your box instead. Or even a bluebird.
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2014. For another story about my first season doing field work, and the impact that it had on everything that came next in my life, including meeting my husband (he was in that same field camp that first summer), check out Ignighting Hearts, Inspiring Hope. The first story in the book, entitled Fledging, was written by yours truly.