Nature: Distinctive singers, a variety of tiny wrens found in Ohio boast bold voices
October 30, 2022
Wrens are a small but outsized group of birds in Ohio. Only five species occur here (normally), but given their propensity for being chatterboxes, they can be conspicuous. Many readers host two species in their yards. The rusty-colored Carolina wren has a set of pipes that make it one of the louder voices among the feathered crowd. Its ringing tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle song sounds like they’re pushed through a Marshall amp.
From spring to fall, house wrens are common in suburbia and elsewhere. Males issue a rollicking torrent of gurgling notes, as if the little bird cannot push them out fast enough, and the notes trip over themselves. House wrens take readily to nest boxes, so it’s an easy matter to establish them in your soundscape.
The most aurally eloquent of our wrens is the winter wren. This pipsqueak weighs but 9 grams and is only four inches long. Despite its Lilliputian dimensions, the winter wren’s aria puts the Three Tenors to shame. Males deliver a long complex song full of artful flourishes and scale runs that must be heard to be believed. The entrancing tumble of notes might last 10 seconds. Proportionate to size, a winter wren has 10 times the vocal strength of a crowing rooster. A rare Ohio breeder, winter wrens become fairly common in migration, and some remain through winter.
Probably our most obscure wren is the enigmatic sedge wren. These mousy little birds occupy grassy/sedgy prairies, pastures and wetlands. They are most easily detected by the males’ mechanical chattering song, which suggests a supercharged sewing machine. Sedges wrens are not particularly common in Ohio, and often don’t appear until late summer. These are birds that presumably nested farther west and north, then moved east to re-nest a second time.
My personal favorite of this stub-tailed crowd is the marsh wren. It is well-named, being tightly tied to lushly vegetated marshes. Like other wrens, it is often first detected by the male’s conspicuous song. A short squeaky series of notes, the song somehow has a liquid quality, as if the singer is underwater.
A few weeks ago, I was at Battelle Darby Metro Park, a crown jewel of our local park system. The Teal Trail bisects an incredible wetland restoration project: marshes, open water and moist to dry prairie. This area always produces interesting animal sightings, birds especially. The lure on this day was two Nelson’s sparrows, a rare migrant.
As I skirted along dense cattail stands, I occasionally heard the harsh fussy scold notes of marsh wrens. They nest here, but by now the locals could be augmented by migrants. Wrens in general are not loathe to voice their dissatisfaction, and I was probably the target of their scolding.
Shortly after settling in to a good hiding hole adjacent to cattails to watch the parade of sparrows ― Savannah, song, swamp, and the targeted Nelson’s ― I saw movement among the cattails accompanied by soft chittered notes. A marsh wren! The bird could not help itself, and curious about the human interloper it moved along the edge of the dense wall of cattails taking peeks at me. At one point it hit its telltale “splits” pose, which is when I took the accompanying image.
More recently, I was at a Hardin County wetland, settled into a camo-hued chair deep in wetland vegetation. I was mostly in camo, and even my big camera lens is dressed in camo. All the better to avoid spooking the waterfowl I was after. Suddenly, a movement caught my eye, and a marsh wren popped from the plants about 5 feet away. It was overcome with curiosity about the strange character in its territory and bounced to within 2 feet of me. I thought it would land on my tripod.
In the words of ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, the marsh wren is: “… a shy and elusive little mite; if we make the slightest motion while watching his antics, he vanishes instantly into the depths of his reedy jungle.” I finally made a motion, and the little wren melted back into vegetation.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.