During our long morning of birding in Somerset, we heard Winter Wrens in every dark wood and tangled spruce thicket. The long, complex song of musical trills tumbled through the dank forests, so many notes falling over one another that you have to wonder how the small lungs can contain so much air to sustain the sound for so long.
Finally, on a thin twisted branch of a fallen hemlock, I saw a brown nodule quivering. The Winter Wren tilted its small body upward. Its stubby tail was cocked high. Its upturned beak shivered. Its throat quavered. The energy pulsed through its wings as it teetered and bobbed through its song. Note after note tumbled forth. I whispered reference marks to my companion, and then we both watched as this secretive little bird of dense woods poured forth his big song, from one perch after another - pausing only occasionally to do a quick foray beneath the log - or perhaps to check on a mate or nestling.
Finally we left him to his long, busy, contralto aria. Picking our way back to the trail we murmured something about a favorite bird.
The Winter Wren is a troglodyte. Troglodyte applied to a person suggests one with the character of a savage cave dweller. Troglodyte - or more specifically, “Troglodytidae” - is the Family name for the “Wrens” and derives from the Latin for “one who crawls into holes.” Most wrens, as a Family, use enclosed spaces for their nesting sites, such as tree cavities, holes among rocks, sometimes holes in buildings, or they build their own cavities, typically globular masses with side entrances.
The Winter Wren epitomizes the troglodyte nature of the Wren Family. Its full scientific name (Family, Genus, species) is “Troglodytidae Troglodytes troglodytes,” which might be translated as “one who creeps into holes, one who creeps into holes, one who creeps into holes.” At about 4 inches, the dark Winter Wren is the smallest of our local wrens - a “stub-tailed gnome that haunts northern evergreen forests in summer ... hard to see, creeping like a rodent under fallen logs, through dense thickets, along streambanks.” (Kaufmann) In spite of its name, most leave our area for the winter months, although a neighbor often has had a Winter Wren wintering in the cavities of his woodpile, and one winter thaw day, I spotted one disappearing into a hole in a sandy bank.
In addition to the Winter Wren, three other members of “Family Troglodytidae” are found in our neighborhood of southeastern Vermont: House Wren, Carolina Wren, and Marsh Wren.
Sibley describes vocalization as the wren’s primary defense mechanism (no “Speak softly but carry a big stick” strategy for this Family). If loquacity doesn’t work, the wren will employ physical confrontation. Last week, I watched a House Wren in my backyard drive away several intruding cowbirds. After the first brood had fledged, the House Wren had gone to work on another nest. The cowbirds were looking for a nest to parasitize or to rob. The House Wrens were having none of that. When the Brown-headed Cowbird - House Wren confrontation was over, I walked over to the nest box. The female looked out at me; she had sat tight on her nest while her mate defended his territorial prerogatives.
As much entertainment value as the House Wrens provide in my backyard, I have mixed feelings about them. They are so aggressive in defending their territory that they will often puncture the eggs of other birds nesting nearby (including those of other House Wrens). They are not feeding on the eggs, just destroying them, in an effort to protect their neighborhood and perhaps confuse predators with abandoned nests.
Like his close cousin, the Winter Wren, you may not be able to see him, but you always know when he’s in the neighborhood.