Birding Column: House Wrens' Twice-a-Minute Feeding Frenzy

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
May 25, 2004

After the spring rains Sullivan Canyon, which lies behind my house in Bel Air, California, is a vernal paradise. Everything turns green, and the trail turns into a stream. And the house wrens start to sing. They are ready to nest and raise a family.

The song of the house wren (Troglodytes aedon) is intoxicatingly beautiful, more like a long, trilling, high-pitched warble than an actual song. I could sit there in my beloved canyon and listen to this music all day long.

But the house wren has other things on his mind. It's busy searching out suitable nesting cavities in the trees, and it's busy communicating with his mate. Every now and then it takes time out to perch briefly on a branch, but most of the time, it is in constant motion.

The first pair of house wrens that I saw were checking out a possible nest site in a hole in a limb in a California sycamore tree that was at about a 45 degree angle to the ground, with the cavity situated on the side of the limb.

For some reason, this hole was never used but further upstream, a nesting cavity, which a wrentit (Chamaea fasciata) had used the previous summer to raise its young, became the perfect site for a pair of house wrens to raise their brood.

I discovered this nesting activity well into the feeding period, and for a couple of days, I was able to watch the male and female house wrens make countless trips to and from the nest, bringing butterflies and all types of insects back to their rapidly growing young.

The wrens took very little note of me, in spite of the fact that I was about 14 feet (4.3 meters) away and clicking my camera all the time. They always gave me a little look on their way out of the nest, however, just to be sure that everything was OK.

A couple of days later, I came back to the nest site, and not a house wren could be seen. Oh, I heard them all right, flitting to and fro among the trees throughout the canyon—but this nest was deserted.

That's how fast it happens. Nature is swift, and she leaves nothing in her wake.

Sullivan Canyon

In 1921 Amelia Allen listed the following items of food that were fed to a brood of eight house wren nestlings during the period of one hour: "5 ladybugs, 4 crane-flies, 5 large and 4 small beetles, 2 wireflies, 1 lacewing, 1 leafhopper, 5 crickets, 1 grasshopper, 1 butterfly, 1 moth, 1 milliped, 1 grub, and 1 unknown; there were 33 feedings, with an average interval between feedings of 14 minutes and 32.7 seconds for each nestling."

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