Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: House wrens don't make the best neighbors

By STACEY COLE August 24. 2018 7:25PM
House wrens often keep busy collecting twigs for their nests. (Metro Creative Connection)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Aug. 17, 1968.

Bird behavior is a fascinating study.

The subject was brought to mind this week by a letter which we received from one of our regular readers in Hebron, who inquired: “Can you tell me why wrens fill a birdhouse almost to the top with twigs, then go off and leave it? Almost seems as though they were just being hateful — filling up the entrance so no other bird can occupy the house. I had to clean out two of my houses so other birds would use them; one is where the bluebirds are now.”

It is often difficult to translate bird and animal behavior into the human tongue. What seems to us to be a logical reason for some action may not, in fact, be the same logic — if logic is used by the bird or animal observed.

As long as I can remember, though, I have attempted to make such translations and I shall continue to do so.

The subject of wren behavior, with particular reference to their habit of filling up birdhouses and other nesting places with sticks, was treated in a most interesting manner by Edward Howe Forbush, the famous Massachusetts ornithologist, when he suggested that following the house wrens’ arrival during the latter part of April it was the male who went about filling up with sticks such nesting places as he thought might be suitable within his neighborhood. Forbush observed that after he had found a mate it was the female that selected one of his chosen nests, threw out his clutter and began to build a nest to her taste. Forbush further observed that wrens have so much to do — singing, squabbling, courting and policing up the grounds of their chosen residence — that it is often late May or early June before the eggs are laid.

The noted ornithologist also observed that an occasional male, perhaps one that had been disappointed in acquiring a mate, or one with a mate who chose to fill his leisure time, would build one nest after another. Occasionally one of these leisure-time pursuits would be utilized by a female as a home for her second brood.

Here at the farm we have been blessed with three pairs of wrens this summer. One of them chose an unpainted bluebird house erected beside the garden gate and reared two broods. Another fashioned its bundle of sticks in the studding of an unused pheasant pen. And the third selected an end apartment of our purple martin house. This pair was badly harassed by house sparrows, starlings and tree swallows. During a period of inattention on the part of the wrens the house sparrows would build a rather bulky nest consisting of hay and chicken feathers. The wrens would return and disgorge all of this selected material upon our lawn and proceed to stuff the nest cavity with twigs. During the interim, tree swallows made great noises and violently dive-bombed both sparrow and wren. What the house wren lacks in size it has gained in persistence and although the wrens did not complete their brood, neither did the sparrows or swallows.

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In one of our apple trees down the lane there is a bluebird house so old that it has now almost become a part of the tree itself. It has never been used by any bird as a nesting place, but for the past several years it had been a repository for stick-collecting wrens. In the early days I religiously unscrewed the bottom of the nesting box and dumped their collection on the ground. However, I found that my time was more valuable spent elsewhere and abandoned this effort.

It could be, I suppose, that the roof leaked and the wrens felt it was not a very good place to rear their brood, or perhaps they were not happy with the green paint or the lack of a perch. It is also quite possible, as our reader states, that “They were just being hateful.”

I ceased to be concerned. I chose not to further intrude upon the affairs of my wren neighbors. After all, I had built the house for the pleasure of the birds and if they preferred it to be simply a storehouse for sticks, that was their business.

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at jlord@unionleader.com.


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