Monday, May 7, 2012

Adirondack Birding: The Winter Wren

Spending time outdoors in the Adirondacks during spring is a rewarding experience, as the sounds that emanate from our forests, especially in the early morning, are sure to delight. While the musical calls produced by most birds are relatively short and composed of only a handful of notes, there are a few songs that are considerably longer and more complex.

The lengthiest and most intricate song that commonly graces our woodlands is one heard in patches of mixed forests where dense clusters of undergrowth or ground debris exist on the forest floor. This fast tempo melody is quite loud, yet comes from one of the smallest birds to nest in the Adirondacks – the winter wren.

Being slightly smaller than a chickadee and supporting brown plumage over its entire body, the winter wren is difficult to notice against a background of dead leaves, twigs and tree bark. Additionally, this bird’s knack for retreating into the nooks and crannies in a tangled mass of fallen trees, a cluster of large rocks covered with brush, or the new growth sprouting from the ball of soil elevated by an uprooted tree makes this wren a challenge to spot.

On those occasions when it is glimpsed, the winter wren can be easily identified by its long and slender bill and the manner in which it holds its stubby tail upright. However, the winter wren is heard far more often than it is seen. The song of this bird lasts for 8 to 9 seconds and is said by sound analysts to be composed of over a hundred notes. While various phrases have been developed to represent the calls of most birds, no verbal device could be formulated to describe the call of the winter wren. The rapid pace at which the wren bellows out its series of notes makes its song impossible to translate into a phrase to help a person recognize it.

It also has been determined by researchers that this wren adds to the length and complexity of its song as it gets older. Many species of birds living in a specific geographic region are known to produce distinct fluctuations to the tone of the notes that compose their songs, thereby creating unique dialects. This is also the case for the winter wren as the melody of this songster varies slightly depending on the region of the country in which this bird lives. However, along with its dialect, the relative age of a winter wren may be assessed by a sound expert, as well as any female wren living in the immediate area, based on its vocal skills and talents.

Along with announcing its presence to potential mates, the male spends some of its time constructing the framework of several nests within his territory. These structures are often tucked away in the crannies of various piles of debris on the forest floor. Once a female elects to claim one of these partially completed structures, she then adds a layer of soft bedding material to the framework to prepare the future nursery for her eggs. While the male assists the female in the various chores associated with nesting, he does not form a lasting bond with her. As soon as the nestlings have learned to fly and find food for them, the male abandons the female and may breed again with a different female that has wandered into his territory.

The preference of this wren to nest, rest and occasional forage in cubbies, grottos, and other similar enclosures near the ground makes this bird function more like a mouse or vole than a bird. By spending a fair amount of time in sheltered places, the winter wren is not as adversely impacted by periods of unseasonably cold spring weather as birds that concentrate their time exposed to the wind in the canopy. This permits the winter wren to arrive in the North Country fairly early in the spring just after the snow has melted despite the cold that still regularly occurs in the early spring.

There is an abundance of bird sounds, along with the noise from peepers and a few other amphibians currently reverberating across the landscape. With the reemergence of black flies and other insects, the Adirondacks can now support a healthy population of birds that are genetically programmed to begin breeding with the onset of bug season. For these feathered creatures, singing is the most common way of attracting a mate, yet no species is as adept at announcing its intension to reproduce as the tiny winter wren.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

7 Responses

  1. Great article on these little guys. We leave piles of brush in various locations for them to nest in. I’ve several of them around the property that seem to display a fair amount of curiosity in my wife and I…or it could be they were foraging and they just didn’t care that we were 5 feet away. Either way, they’re a pleasure with beautiful vocalizations.

  2. I did devise a phrase to describe the Winter Wren’s complex song. It goes like this (trilling on the “cheerfully):
    I sing so ch-e-e-e-e-rfully, I sing so ch-e-e-e-e-rfully, I sing so ch-e-e-e-e-rfully, and I just cant stop!

  3. Dan Crane says:

    On several occasions, I have heard the typical winter wren song but with the ovenbird’s “Teacher, Teacher, Teacher” in the middle. The winter wrens nest must have been near an ovenbirds’. Just goes to show that your children can pick up all kinds of bad habits from the neighborhood kids.

    Also, it is my understanding that a single male winter wren will mate with any female within his territory. Thus, he may be supporting multiple broods by several females. There is a word for this but I shall refrain from using it on this family friendly website.

  4. Tom Kalinowski says:

    Hi Dan: I am of the opinion that once a male commits to a female, he spends all of his time with her until the fledgling are old enough to take care of themselves. You could be correct in you belief that he may divide his time between two or three other females in the area, but I think that is more typical of birds like the red-winged blackbird that don’t participate as much in the nesting process as does the winter wren. I will try to find out more. Thanks for the grest question.

  5. Bev Stellges says:

    Hi! I do enjoy immensely all the nature articles as well as many others. However, on the new website I cannot find an email address to contact the Almanack. Your new look is great; however, the print for the articles is MUCH too small! I print of some of the articles for an 89 year old friend who does not use the computer and even I have trouble reading the printed version. Please, how does one contact someone at the Almanack? Please use a larger font for the articles. Thank you, Bev

  6. Paul says:

    The song of this little bird is just amazing. Thanks for the post Tom. Here is a Cornell lab of ornithology link where you can hear a recording:

  7. Paul says:

    Interesting the genus of this bird is “Troglodytes”. A cave dweller. That must come from what you say above Tom about its nesting behavior.

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