Sunday, June 8, 2014

Mama Wren Returns... With A Vengeance

Last spring, we bought a small wren house made of recycled plastic and hung it in the dogwood tree just outside our back door. Being the bird dorks that we are, we were hoping to attract a pair of Carolina wrens and provide them with a nice place to make a home and raise multiple broods. The primary difference between a wren house and nest boxes for other birds, like bluebirds and swallows, is that the entrance is much smaller. It’s large enough to allow access to wrens, chickadees, and a few other petite birds, while keeping out the larger, aggressive breeds, as well as other unwanted pests.

English Sparrows in particular are assholes, as they’ll regularly take over the established nests of other birds, destroying any eggs or offspring in their way. They’ll even attack the adult inhabitants, if they feel so inclined.

My sister has set up several nest boxes for her barn swallows, and she’s been spending the past month trying to keep the English sparrows at bay, dismantling any nests that they begin building in the nest boxes. Last week when she checked on one of her boxes with an already established nest, she found that the mother swallow had been pecked to death by a gang of rogue English sparrows.

She wasn’t happy. Neither was my brother-in-law, who promptly went out and bought her a bee-bee gun.

Fortunately, we haven’t needed to resort to heavily artillery, as these feathered British Douche-Bags are too big to squeeze into the wren house.

After we hung the house, we watched out our dinette window in anticipation, hoping that a Carolina wren would show up to explore the new dwelling and eventually stake it’s claim. We did receive several visits from an inquisitive pair of chickadees, who closely investigated the house for almost a week. However, they ultimately moved on, deciding that the blue-roofed dwelling was not for them.

As more time passed, we were about to give up hope when an unexpected couple showed up. One day while at work, I received an excited call from my wife, announcing that some new neighbors had started to move in.
“WE HAVE CAROLINA WRENS!!!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, disturbing everybody else in my department. My supervisor Lisa, who despises all creatures feathered, just mumbled to herself, shaking her head in disgust. 
“Nooooooo, try again,” said my wife. 
“Um… White-throated sparrows?” 
“No, we have a pair of house wrens!” she exclaimed. 
“House wrens… Oh, cool!”
Although I was really hoping for Carolina wrens, I was happy to have their close relatives. In the five previous years we’d lived in our house, I hadn’t seen nor heard any sign of a house wren within a mile of our property. It didn’t take me long to get familiar with these lively little creatures. After only a few hours, we became acquainted with their ear-splitting, shrill chirping sound, which began as early as five in the morning and carried on until dusk every evening. Once they had decided that this would be the place, they began furiously constructing a nest, carrying giant twigs to the house and jamming them into the tiny opening. Within a few days, their handiwork was complete.

For the next several months, we enjoyed nature’s finest reality show from the comfort of our kitchen table, as our resident pair of wrens raised and fledged two broods of offspring, chattering and carrying on all summer long. Since the house was hanging just to the left of our back door, we’d get a tongue-lashing from Mama Wren every time we walked by or got too close to the nest. On the two occasions that I lifted the roof off the house to peek at the babies, she flew in like a rocket, screaming bloody murder as she danced about between the branches of the tree just a few feet away. We didn’t take it personally, as we were well aware that she was simply sticking up for her helpless, vulnerable offspring.

Once summer came to an end, Mama Wren and her male counterpart moved out, abandoning the house that had served them successfully for the past two months. Once I was sure they weren’t coming back, I discarded the nest and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected the house using vinegar and boiling water. Although nesting season had come and gone, my wife suggested that we hang the house back up in the tree and fill it with some soft bedding materials, just in case any of our pint-sized feathered friends wanted a place to roost during frigid evenings in the upcoming winter.

During my next trip to the Bird House, our go-to store for all things feathered, I picked up a bag of bird-bedding, jammed a large wad of it into the newly-cleaned wren house, and hung it back up in the dogwood tree. For the next several months, we endured what turned out to be one of the coldest, most miserable winters I can remember, with stretches of not just days, but weeks, of sub-zero temperatures. And yet, our entire backyard continued buzzing with activity, as the bird traffic at our multiple feeders remained constant.
“How do they not freeze to death?” my wife wondered aloud several times throughout the frigid season.
“I guess their feathers keep them warm.”
Truly, I had no idea how they didn’t turn into feathered popsicles. With the constant bitter conditions, I expected there to be a hoard of wrens, chickadees, and other small birds waiting in line for an opportunity to spend the night in a sheltered dwelling lined with warm bedding. But we never saw a single bird show any interest.

As winter began to wind down in late March and the first signs of Spring made their presence known, we began camping out by our family room window, waiting for the spring birds to show up. And every night at dinner, we’d keep an eye on the dogwood tree, in hopes that our pair of wrens would return for another season. As far as we could tell, the house had remained vacant throughout the entire winter. We decided to leave the bird bedding in place, thinking that any potential occupants would appreciate the gesture.

However, we learned fairly quickly that house wrens are extremely picky about their interior furnishings.

By the middle of April, we began to hear their familiar call within the area. For the first few days, they stayed further away around the border of our property. But within a week, their chattering was again heard right outside our back door, as they began to investigate the house in the Dogwood for the second year in a row.

Late one Saturday morning after I’d returned from a fifteen-mile run, my wife and I were enjoying coffee on the couch when we heard an ear-splitting shriek right outside the back door.
“What on earth…” My wife leapt from the couch with coffee mug in hand and headed towards the dinette, and I followed.
As we peered curiously out the back door, it didn’t take us long to figure out that Mama Wren had taken issue with the contents of the house. After a few moments, we saw a large wad of bird bedding fly from the entrance of the wren house, plummeting helplessly to the ground below. A second later, Mama Wren poked her head from the entrance, let loose with an ear-splitting shriek, and disappeared back inside the house. After another moment she emerged with another beakful of bird bedding and hurled it into the air so far that it landed in a branch several feet a way.

“What a miserable, ungrateful little turd!” my wife exclaimed.
“Hmmm…,” I said, as I thumbed through Stan Tekiela’s field guide - Birds of New York, looking for the page on house wrens. “According to the bird book, a female wren will completely fill the nest cavity with uniformly small twigs, then line a small depression at the back of the cavity with pine needles and grass.”
“That bag of bird bedding cost almost five dollars!”
“I know. Maybe we should have bought a bag of sticks… or grass clippings.”
“Maybe that stupid little bird should be grateful we left her a supply of warm bedding.”
“Apparently, female wrens are shallow and materialistic.”
For the next fifteen minutes, we watched in bewilderment as Mama Wren emptied the house completely. Every few seconds, she’d poke her head out of the entrance with a huge wad of bird bedding in her beak and angrily fling it to the ground below before letting loose with another ear-shattering scream. By the time she was finished, the ground and brick sidewalk below, and even the branches all around the house, were absolutely littered with unwanted bird bedding.

No sooner had she tossed what was apparently the last bit of bedding from the house, when she and her mate began scrounging around for materials to build a nest from scratch. The lively duo spent the next three days gathering sticks and twigs of all sizes, hauling them to the house, and cramming them through the small opening. The smaller materials fit easily through the small opening. But on many occasions, they’d fly in with larger twig that was two, sometimes three times their size. We watched in awe as they approached the opening to the house and tried to wedge the monstrous pieces through opening in mid-flight. In a few instances, they’d manage on the first try. However, on many occasions they’d drop larger twigs onto the ground below. Instead of showing any signs of frustration, they’d simply dart to the ground, retrieve the dropped stick, and try again. By the second or third attempt, they’d realize they needed to turn sideways to successfully fit a larger twig into the house.

After the next was complete, both wrens spent their day flying back and forth between the dogwood tree and the larger maple trees on the border of our property, frequently entering and exiting the hanging house, standing guard on the tree, and carrying on loudly from the crack of dawn through the arrival of dusk.

Just a few days ago, I set a ladder up under the tree, and gently lifted roof to the house.

This is what I saw…