Sunday, March 5, 2023

Tiny bird, big voice: Carolina wren sings a distinctive tune

A Carolina wren investigates orange mock oyster mushrooms/Jim McCormac

Tiny bird, big voice: Carolina wren sings a distinctive tune

March 5, 2023

Jim McCormac

It is only early March, with Old Man Winter still looming large in the rearview mirror. But the birds speak – literally – of spring. Ever-lengthening daylight hours trigger our earliest songbirds to clear those pipes and tune up for the breeding season.

The dawn chorus is becoming ever more conspicuous. Well-named song sparrows contribute their ornate melodies, commencing in the re-dawn gloom. The little striped sparrows, habitu├ęs of yards and gardens as well as the wildest habitats, deliver beautifully complex arias ornate in structure.

Northern cardinals – our state bird – sing sweet whistles sure to charm a mate. It’s worth trying to track down the singer. The more somberly toned females sing as well as the gaudy males. Sometimes a pair will duet back and forth.

American robins, our boldest and most robust thrush, are already adding their loud caroling to the chorus. So are comparatively elfin Carolina chickadees, their song a clear sing-song four-parted whistle. White-breasted nuthatches pipe in with a series of stridently nasal yank-yank-yanks. As spring picks up steam, the cast of feathered musicians will diversify, and the soundscape will richen.

Of the early bird singers, perhaps the most conspicuous is the Carolina wren. The male who has laid claim to my yard is busy making himself known to all of late. For a bird that measures only 5½ inches and weighs three-quarters of an ounce, the little skulker has a set of pipes that would put Pavarotti to shame. The song is a loud, clear-whistled teakettle-teakettle-teakettle which can’t be missed. If the songster delivered an early morning message from shrubs under your window, he’d awaken you.

That song isn’t the only tool in the wren’s vocal repertoire. Both sexes produce an astonishingly varied set of calls, in addition to numerous variations of their song. In the bird world, songs are generally sung by males (the cardinal is very much an exception) and they are normally longer, louder and more complex than calls. Songs serve to attract mates, establish territorial boundaries and alert rival males to the where territorial fences are.

Calls are typically much shorter, often quieter and less complex than songs. They serve many purposes, such as keeping mates apprised of the caller’s location, scolding would-be threats, alerting other birds to those threats and notifying mates of food sources.

In the Carolina wren’s case, some calls are nearly as conspicuous as its song. Inveterate busybodies, the wrens investigate everything. If they find something that causes displeasure, like a cat, raccoon or undesirable person, a wren might release a salvo of loudly grating jeer-jeer notes that can practically be heard over a gas-powered leaf blower.

A favorite is what I term the “rattlesnake call.” Issued when the wren is confronted by a threat or annoyance, it is often delivered from deep brush which conceals the scolder. Not many people these days have heard a timber rattlesnake, but I have and the wren’s call sounds eerily similar to me. Creatures that know the buzzing whir created by the snake’s rattles are likely to head the other direction.

If the Carolina wren’s singing entices a mate, there will be further steps in their relationship with the ultimate goal of producing wrenlets. The baby wrens will hatch and grow in a magnificent nest constructed by both parents. It is a bulky grass-lined vegetative dome, usually with a door on the side, and is often adorned with feathers, paper, string, and even snake skins. Got a shedding dog? Brush him outside and let the wrens (and chickadees, titmice and others) harvest the fur. It’ll embellish their nests.

Carolina wrens often pick quirky nest sites. Old shoes, hanging flower baskets, shelves in garages and sheds, mailboxes, old cans and pockets of old coats have all been used. More typically, the nest will be on the ground in dense vegetation, among root masses, in holes in tree stumps and similar hidey-holes.

While winter is likely to rear its icy head again, the birds don’t care. Spring is here, plants are rising from their slumber, insects are stirring, and the wrens and others are filled with spring fever.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature


Jack and Brenda said...

We’ve had Carolina Wrens around for several years, but this is the first year that a pair decided to use one of my birdhouses to nest. It took just a day to build. No eggs yet.

Jim McCormac said...

Amazingly speedy builders! Good luck with the nest, hope all goes well.