Bird Watcher's General Store

Marsh Wrens Can Be Found in a Marsh!
12/04/09

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Dear Bird Folks,

Over the years we've had Winter Wrens, House Wrens and Carolina Wrens in our yard. Someday I would like to add Marsh Wren to that list. Do you think that is possible even though I don't live near a marsh? And if it's not possible, where would be a good place for me to go to see one?

- Harry, Dennis Port, MA

Get some scissors, Harry,

I've become aware that quite a few people cutout this column and send it to others. They do it to either share the information with friends or just to annoy them. Either reason is fine with me. If fact, I do the same thing. I often cut items out of the paper. I have to do it quickly, though. The guy who owns the newsstand gets mad if he catches me. I don't see the big deal. It's not like I'm taking the whole paper. Anyhow, you should cutout this column and put it with your 2010 Red Sox schedule, because now is not the best time to look for Marsh Wrens. However, it will be time to see them once the Red Sox start playing again. I'm not sure what the correlation between the two is, but who am I to question the ways of nature?

As their name implies, Marsh Wrens are birds of wetlands; so unless your house happens to be a muskrat lodge you aren't likely to have them on your property. The good news is they are fairly easy birds to find, but actually seeing one is another story. They are shy birds, which is quite the opposite of their showy cousins, the House Wrens. House Wrens are exhibitionists. They often sing from an exposed branch or a fence post and they don't care who sees them. By comparison the Marsh Wrens are agoraphophic. Oh sure, they like to sing, too, but they don't want anyone watching them doing it. Marsh Wrens spend their entire lives hiding amongst reeds and cattails and rarely venture away from them.

Historically the most reliable location to find a Marsh Wren on Cape Cod is the wetlands area off of Bells Neck Road in West Harwich (MA). If the thought of walking through gooey wetlands creeps you out, you can relax. These birds can be heard right from the road. Starting in late April (just after the Red Sox play their home opener) the male wrens return from the south and immediately start singing to announce their territories. By far the best way to locate this wren is to learn its song. The males sing a rapid assortment of harsh, mechanical chips that sound to some ears like a Geiger counter. That's helpful if you happen to know what a Geiger counter sounds like, but to me the birds sound like an angry red squirrel played at a high speed. I think we've all heard that before. Another good thing to know about these birds is that you won't have to get up early to hear them. During the breeding season they almost never shut up. Even after dark they'll often continue to sing. Remember we are talking about wrens, and like all wrens Marsh Wrens are bursting with energy. The excessive behavior of these birds isn't confined only to singing; it translates to their nest building, also. While the average bird has all it can do to build one nest each breeding season, the male Marsh Wren is like a grandmother who can't stop knitting sweaters. Each year he may build as many as twenty (that's right, twenty) elaborate domed nests in his territory and not even work up a sweat. I think we should forget the Wind Farm. If we really want to find a reliable source of clean power, we should harness a couple of Marsh Wrens and we'll have enough energy to light half the country.

The reason they build so many nests isn't clear, but one theory has to do with predator avoidance. Snakes have been observed investigating empty nest after empty nest without ever finding a nest containing the babies. I couldn't agree more with that theory. If I knew a snake was looking for me, I'd build 200 extra houses. The Marsh Wren's manic behavior also has a dark side. It will destroy any other bird's eggs or nestlings that it finds within its territory. More than one Red-winged Blackbird family has discovered just how psycho these birds can be. The reason for this aggression is thought to have to do with food protection. If the wrens can keep the area free of other birds they'll have more food for themselves. Are they kidding? Wrens are insect eaters and they live in a marsh. When has there ever been a shortage of insects in a marsh? I think the birds are just nuts.

You aren't likely to see a Marsh Wren in your yard, Harry, but come spring they'll be returning to the nearby town of Harwich. After you watch the Red Sox home opener take a drive over to the Harwich conservation area and listen for their singing. If you don't hear the birds right away you can use the extra time to think about all the bonehead trades the Red Sox made during the winter. I'm sure they'll be plenty of them to think about.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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