The Little Bird With The Big Voice

I love Carolina wrens.

Bird fence 2246

Photo by Dori from Wikimedia Commons

The Carolina wren–Thryothorus ludovicianus–is one of our larger wren species in North America, although even so, they’re not very big. One could stand on the palm of your hand and you’d be struck more by the force of its personality than by its size. This is a flitting, bossy, high-energy, cheerful little bird.


If it opened its beak, you’d be really struck by its voice. For having such a tiny little chest, the Carolina wren belts out a teakettle-teakettle-teakettle call at truly shocking volume. When one perches on the deck railing in the early morning and starts yelling, it’ll knock me out of a sound sleep, a feat which generally requires brass bands, nuclear war, or a very determined cat.

If you held our hypothetical wren in your hand and held still long enough, it’d probably try to build a nest on your fingers. Carolina wrens are notorious for nesting in the most haphazard places possible–hats, barbecue grills, boxes left on the porch overnight, flowerpots at commercial nurseries, and even loose pockets of clothing left on a clothesline for a few hours.  That the species survives is a testimony to their determination (and presumably their fecundity.)

Me, I love their butts. Their tailfeathers are always upright, and they look so jaunty and cheerful. When I first began birdwatching, Carolina wrens were one of the first birds I learned to identify, mostly because of the big white eye-stripe and the very jaunty butt.


Detail of a wren painting I did about a thousand years ago

Carolina wrens are one of the many birds that live almost entirely on meat–insects, invertebrates, even very small frogs. You can attract them by doing all the usual good things–planting native plants that draw in insects, avoiding pesticides that will kill off their food sources, and providing water sources. They also love suet feeders, and some wrens will eat seeds, particularly in winter–I’ve had good luck with safflower and millet, but other people report sunflower chips as the best source. (I suspect it depends on how much food is available and how picky the birds can afford to be.)

You can provide a nest box if you really want to, although the wrens are just as likely to ignore it and take up residence on your porch light or in your backyard grill.  The nest is an untidy tangle of leaves and small twigs in a rough pouch shape.  I once had a wren nest in a shallow box on my potting table–the nest filled the entire box and spilled over the sides, although the fledglings only used a small portion of it.

Far more useful for wren purposes is a roosting pocket. Carolina wrens don’t really believe in migration and populations crash whenever there’s a particularly cold winter in the East. Come spring, young birds will travel a short ways north searching for territories, and the range gradually creeps north again, then there’s another cold winter and the population crashes again. Roosting pockets and roost boxes can provide a warm place for a wren to wait out the worst of the cold snaps, although at the end of the day, it’s really up to the weather.

If you don’t have wrens in the garden, it’s worth trying to attract them. They’re useful little birds, they eat a vast array of pests, they’re one of the more likely birds to nest where you can watch the babies, which is a thrill all its own, and they’re simply a delight to have around.

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  1. Jane says

    Love these birds! They have so many recognizable calls. We have wrens building nests in our garage every year. I just saw one, this morning, pecking at my peanut feeder. Thanks for the article.

  2. says

    We don’t have Carolina wrens this far north but I remember them well when we lived in Maryland. We had a mom one spring bring her 5 babies to our feeders. We like to give birds names, so in our conversations we say I saw “Vinny” today. Nuthatches are called “Vinny”, Flickers are called “Vern” and we call the Carolina Wrens “Jackson”. So when mom brought her 5 into the yard, it couldn’t be more fitting that the “Jackson 5″ had just shown up.

    Heather recently posted..The Importance of Wasps in the Native Landscape

  3. Kim says

    I love Carolina Wrens also. They are such happy and friendly little birds. The ones in my yard also eat peanuts (no shell) and suet all year round.

  4. Carmalee W says

    Not Carolina Wrens, but we had wrens who built nests in our hanging asparagus ferns. We had to water very carefully, in order to not drown the poor things.

  5. says

    “If you don’t have wrens in the garden, it’s worth trying to attract them.” I think you meant it’s still worth trying to attract them.

    Lovely article as usual. Makes me wish I had a garden *sigh*

  6. says

    These guys are the favorite of my garden. They get into everything and are a hoot. Last year they nested on my porch and when the babies fledged, the babies landed on me and hopped all over my lap and shoulders. Mom had a FIT. It was a beautiful moment.
    Karyl recently posted..Every Bird House is a Memory


  1. […] 166. The Little Bird With The Big Voice: The Carolina wren is one of our larger wren species in North America, although even so, they’re not very big. One could stand on the palm of your hand and you’d be struck more by the force of its personality than by its size. This is a flitting, bossy, high-energy, cheerful little bird.If it opened its beak, you’d be really struck by its voice… ~Ursula Vernon […]

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