Monday, June 24, 2024

A Carolina wren displays its white eye stripe and upturned tail on Dec. 16, 2021. (Photo: Tom Murray)

Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), as the name implies, were once found only in the Southeastern United States. In fact, the Carolina wren is the official state bird of South Carolina! These 5-inch birds (weighing less than an ounce) have great resiliency, though, and have managed to make the Northeast their home, too.

Carolina wrens have expanded their range northward over the past century. Warmer New England winters and backyard bird feeders have helped this nonmigratory bird survive through our chilliest months. These wrens find much of their food on the ground, and when deep snow covers the earth, the wrens are unable to find enough food to survive. Therefore, winters with a lot of snow take a toll on the wren population. Remember the winter of 2015 with its 110 inches of snow? That winter devastated the Carolina wren population – though these tough little birds have rebounded.

A Carolina wren in North Cambridge prepares to build a nest on April 25. (Photo: Richard George)

Carolina wrens prefer dense shrubs and ground cover in which to nest, forage and hide from predators. They do well in suburban areas with bird feeders and shrubbery or bushy plants. Most of the time these birds are carnivores, eating insects and spiders with the occasional small frog or snake. But in the winter, the wrens also eat seeds, nuts and berries. On snow-covered days, they especially like bird feeder peanuts, hulled sunflower seeds and suet. One peanut provides more than a third of the bird’s daily caloric needs.

Carolina wrens build nests in early- to mid-April. They are one of the first birds to nest in the spring. The male, in fact, builds several nests, then lets the female choose the one she prefers. These wrens have been known to nest in unusual places, including mailboxes, flowerpots, buckets, old boots or even the pocket of an old coat hanging on a porch. According to ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, a Carolina wren once entered a house through a partly open window and built a nest in the back of an upholstered sofa. He also tells of a Carolina wren that built a nest in a rack in a blacksmith shop in 1911. The mother bird “flew boldly about, gathering shavings under the smith’s hands and feet, approaching the nest over a horse that was being shod, and often keeping her place upon her nest when the smith worked . . . undaunted by the ringing blows or showers of sparks.”

A Carolina wren endures a Feb. 15 storm during our snowy winter of 2015. (Photo: Tom Murray)

Carolina wrens mate for life. They are loyal to each other and forage and move around together even during the winter. The female lays about five eggs, which she incubates for two weeks while the male brings her food. Both parents feed the chicks for about two more weeks. After this period, the young are independent and fend for themselves.

A male Carolina wren defends its territory by constant singing, broadcasting a warning to others that he will chase away intruders. These wrens are one of the loudest birds for their size, and they sing anytime and anywhere. In fact, you will likely hear this bird before you see it.

A fluffed out Carolina wren in Strawberry Hill, Cambridge, on Dec. 21, 2021. The wren’s sharp, curved beak helps it probe for insects. (Photo: Richard George)

Male Carolina wrens sing many songs; the females do not sing, but instead make a chattering sound. Each male might sing 40 distinct songs, each made up of two to four repeated syllables. Humans, of course, use English words to describe these songs: “teakettle, tea-kettle, teakettle,” “cherry, cherry, cherry,” “liberty, liberty, liberty” or “sugar to eat, sugar to eat, sugar to eat, sugar.” (Sometimes it’s not quite English, as in: “CHE-wortel, CHE-wortel, Cho WE.”) Carolina wrens are one of the few birds that sing every month of the year, although they do it most incessantly during the spring and late summer. They sing any time from dawn to dusk during spring rains, summer sunshine or winter storms.

In Groton on Dec. 16, 2021, a Carolina wren cocks its tail upright – something sparrows cannot do. (Photo: Tom Murray)

An unpaired Carolina wren might repeat a song 200 times before switching in trying to secure a mate. (Paired males sing to mark a territory.) A female might join her mate, calling in a chattering manner. This lets other wrens know that the pair have claimed a territory.

While the female’s ability to chatter is innate, and young females can chatter when they are only a couple of weeks old, young male Carolina wrens learn their songs by listening to adults. Like children, they begin by babbling. But after several months of practice, they begin to repeat the clear songs of neighboring males. 

A Carolina wren sings in East Arlington on April 9, 2022. (Photo: Richard George)

If you hear a bird calling “teakettle, tea-kettle, teakettle,” look around carefully for this well-hidden wren. If you see a little bird with a broad white stripe above each eye and an upturned tail, you have spotted a Carolina wren.


Reader photo

Kathy Hunt spotted this praying mantis in Somerset, New Jersey.


Have you taken photos of our urban wild things? Send your images to Cambridge Day, and we may use them as part of a future feature. Include the photographer’s name, date and the general location where the photo was taken as well as any other relevant information.

Jeanine Farley is an educational writer who has lived in the Boston area for more than 30 years. She enjoys taking photos of our urban wild things.