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I stand on my back porch and watch a tiny brownish bird streak from the apple tree to the garden, drop to the ground at one end of the vegetable bed, and disappear under the dense greenery. Broccoli leaves quiver as the bird travels through the hidden depths of the patch. The house wren emerges at the other end of the bed, with a large cabbage moth caterpillar bulging in its bill. I know where that caterpillar's going.
Under the eaves of our house, a gourd-like pottery birdhouse swings from a cord, and cradled within are seven baby house wrens. Hungry baby house wrens. They chirp continually.
Carrying the caterpillar, the wren dashes to the nest and dives through the entrance hole. For a moment, sound ceases. Then she's out and gone, and the babies begin to cry again. They're still hungry!
The nest is right outside my window. I've timed the parents' trips. From daylight to dusk, seldom does more than two minutes elapse between feedings. Observers whose patience exceeds mine have counted over 1000 feedings to a house wren brood in one day.
And what do these meals consist of? Caterpillars off my chard and broccoli. Aphids pried from apple buds. Grasshoppers out of my cherished green beans. Moths. Beetles. Snails. My garden does better when wrens patrol it. I knew this would be a good year for chard and broccoli when the wrens appeared, in mid April.
Love's labor spurned
This male was lucky. Sometimes a female doesn't like the nest the male has started. One year a female went into a birdhouse a male was advertising in my back yard and then simply flew away and didn't come back.
No quitter, the male wren immediately began working on a new nest in a tree cavity. Eventually he succeeded in attracting a mate. Although I was disappointed, because I couldn't look into that nest, the wrens succeeded in raising a family there.
Male and female
Although male and female house wrens look alike, after watching them a while I believed I could tell them apart by their attitude. When the pair is feeding young, the female goes to straight to the nest. A few seconds before she arrives, the babies inside rev up the volume of their chattering. That tips me off to I look up from my work in time to see a wren, feathers sleeked down, land at the entrance to the birdhouse and disappear inside.
House Wren singsThe male seems to want for me and everybody else to notice him. Suddenly a puffed-up little wren perches in the arrowwood viburnum next to the birdhouse. He clings to a vertical stem, points his sharp bill upward, and explodes into song. Then he's gone, only to reappear singing in a hawthorn on the other side of the nest. His wings vibrate. He sways from side to side. Even with his beak full of food for the nest, he sings.
After the eggs hatched this year, I stopped seeing two adults at the same time. Maybe one belonged to the minority of male house wrens who switch their attentions to a second mate and family before the first brood is fledged. I heard a wren singing from the other side of the house. That may have been the same male inviting another female to inspect a tipped-over flowerpot tilled with twigs in the tool shed.
However, the female under the eaves had motivation and energy enough to provide for her babies by herself. As they grew, the nestlings made more and more noise. They started poking their yellow-flanged bills out the entrance, opening them wide to receive whatever prey their mother brought. During the last few days in the nest they crowded at the entrance, vying with each other to put their heads out. Sometimes one of the babies was more outside the birdhouse than inside and almost fell.
About two weeks after hatching, the fledgling wrens left the nest. Although I neglected my work to watch the wrens' nest nearly all day, I saw only two of the babies actually leave. They flew straight and fast out of the entrance.