Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) by Philip English
The Winter Wren is a complex bird.
Of all wrens found today in America, Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) or, WIWR (as he is known by his species alpha-code) is most closely related to Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) who continues as the sole wren species found throughout that part of the world, and who was – for that reason – known in Shakespearean Europe as simply, “Wren.” Also for that reason (and as we do traditionally with all wrens now) in traditional folklore he was bestowed upon with that auspicious title: The King of the Birds, and has a place in the Germanic stories of The Brothers Grimm (The Bear and the Willow Wren). He holds a special place in Catholicism too (as the antagonist in the tale of the betrayal of Saint Stephen, and is to this day the symbolic subject in the tradition of “killing the wren.” The tale (and tail) of the wren is even more complex however, and reaches further back into ancient folklore, for he comes to us – as King – via the fable of Aesop, but those are stories for another time. Do ask me about them though; I love to tell the tales!
We humans most often simplify our understandings of bird species by concentrating on those most closely touching our lives. In the case of our collective Indiana experience, our more casual thoughts on wrens are usually limited to the ones we generally encounter in our State:
Carolina Wren, or CARW (Thryothorus ludovicianus)
House Wren, or HOWR (Troglodytes aedon)
Sedge Wren, or SEWR (Cistothorus platensis)
Marsh Wren, or MAWR (Cistothorus palustris) and
Winter Wren, or WIWR (Troglodytes hiemalis) – our hero for this writing.
Winter Wren is a simple appearing, tiny, dusky brown ball of feathers.
However, there is little else that is actually simple about WIWR. The array of complexities housed in this little bird are astounding. His behaviors, range, and migratory patterns are nearly as complex as his song. Not an easy bird to spot, he is secretive as a general rule, and you’ll most likely hear his complex song – which is his true claim to fame (along with winning the award for the shortest of all wren tails).
It’s difficult to talk about one species of Wren without drawing at least some broad considerations to the other species we know; however, one of the common threads that all of our Hoosier wrens (and wrens in general) share are their songs. As a child, one of my earliest memories is that of my own mother holding me up to a window to listen to the song of what I’m sure was a Carolina Wren. She more than a few times commented on the paradox of the wren and his song, saying, “God has taken the tiniest bird and given him the loudest voice!”
If your general interest in songbirds is driven by their actual songs, Winter Wren is ready to engage and captivate you with one that is remarkably complex (albeit not nearly so complex in repertoire as is his newly species-designated cousin, Troglodytes pacificus: Pacific Wren). As with other wrens, it can be certainly assumed that the male does the lion’s share of the singing, but the females are known to chime in, and augment the males’ songs. As a matter of a fact, the King (and Queen) of the Birds’ songs have long been considered by many to be among the zenith of all North American songbirds, and where complexity – if not repertoire any longer– is concerned, the Winter Wren is the champion.
Winter Wren’s breeding grounds are mostly in the boreal, old growth forests of Canada, but (as BNA explains) he also “…breeds in the northeastern U.S. and much of southern Canada, and overwinters primarily in the southeastern U.S.”¹. However, there are pockets of the U.S. – some extending into Appalachia even – where WIWR resides year-round; this only adds to the complexity of this bird’s life.
The term troglodyte translates to “cave dweller” – defining this bird’s foraging and nesting habits – picking among the cavities, crags and crevices of the old-growth forest understory.
My own first (or, “life”) bird experience with this mighty little troglodyte was the direct result of his song. This was with my daughter, birding for the first time, and during our first visit to the newly set aside, Red Tail Land Conservancy property in Hagerstown, IN.
While busy counting the American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos that frigid day, I thought I caught the fleeting glimpse of a wren in a patch of tangled overgrowth. He bobbed on the twigs a bit, and then was gone, disappearing from my sight almost as soon as he had come to it. I pulled out my cell phone, and played the CARW recording, but it was to no avail. I then thought to play the recorded WIWR song available on Cornell University’s great website, Allaboutbirds. Take a listen!
No more than 5 seconds had passed before the bird returned – ignoring my substantial human presence almost completely – responding with his own version of the same song I had played for him. It was as plain to me as the beak on his face – so to speak – that he was not a Carolina Wren. This fellow – covered in subdued brown feathers, had a much shorter and straighter bill than CARW, and was not much larger than what resembled a ping-pong ball, bobbing up and down, singing, and flicking incessantly from twig to twig before me. After getting a prime look at him, we moved along the curving path, and delighted of spirit to have finally found Winter Wren! We were surprised to find him following us, and continuing this unique behavior – utterly scolding us – until we were clear of the area completely. At six foot, three inches, and 17,838 times his probable weight (about 8.9g) I nevertheless felt as though I had just been handed my hat. We learned quickly that WIWR is complex of attitude as well as song.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but what we were witnessing were several of WIWR’s complex, hard-wired features in action: a highly territorial bird, he responds in song aggressively with his own to that of any other WIWR’s song, and especially if it varies slightly from his own. This is apparently true even if his opponent is over 6 feet tall! Later on I learned that my casual experience as a novice birder that day appeared to – at least partially – mirror the findings of some important academic research studying these birds’ song complexities and the inter-species behavioral traits which result from them.²
Due at least in part to that research into the complexities of songs, WIWR was split up into three species by the AOU³ : Winter Wren, Pacific Wren, and Eurasian Wren, with 40 subspecies known to exist in the Northern Hemisphere.
¹Birds of North America Species Accounts for Winter Wren. Accessed at https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.623
²In the journal Molecular Ecology ( 2008. Cryptic speciation in a Holarctic passerine revealed by genetic and bioacoustic analyses. Molecular Ecology 17:2691–2705) David Toews and Darren Irwin reported that they discovered similar behavior after finding a place along the Murray River in eastern British Columbia where WIWR with different songs breed near each other.
³In 2010 the American Ornithological Union (AOU) split the Winter Wren into the three separate species (In 2016 the AOU merged with the American Ornithological Society, and now use that name: the AOS).