Birds & Birding

Why Carolina Wrens Have Moved into Your Neighborhood

February 9, 2021

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brown and russet bird with mouth open singing
A Carolina wren in Florida. © Dennis Church / Flickr

This week is the Great Backyard Bird Count, one of the largest citizen science efforts in the world. People are asked to record birds in their yard or neighborhood, and this simple effort has helped record changes with numerous species. One of those notable species is the Carolina wren. In a two-part series, we take a look at this remarkable little bird.

Although it weighs less than a soup spoon, the cavity-nesting, insect-eating, and curious Carolina wren seems to be using urbanization to their advantage — simply by using objects that humans provide.

As urban areas grow, impacts on wildlife increase. Pesticide use can cause low prey abundance. Clearing trees to build more houses and business buildings results in the lack of nesting habitat. Particularly with birds, research suggests urbanization can play a huge role in survival. However, the Carolina wren in particular seems to have found a few ways to assist with their urban occupancy.

Unlike other birds who may find it harder to adapt to urban areas, it seems that Carolina wrens may be finding ways to benefit from our human presence.

brown and russet bird
© Dennis Church / Flickr

You may be hearing more of the very recognizable “tea-kettle tea-kettle” call and seeing more of the chestnut and cinnamon color of the Carolina wren throughout more urban and suburban areas. Although commonly found foraging and living in rural areas of open woods and backyards, the Carolina wren has also been bringing its activities to urban and suburban areas also.

The science and mystery behind a bird’s behavior and survival comes from observations and continuous monitoring. Jacob Malcom, director of the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife, expresses his passion about working with birds through various birding activities. He also expresses a notable soft spot for Carolina wrens.

“My start in conservation was through birds — including lots of Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Surveys, and even more bird banding (tracking birds) at migration stations and Monitoring Avian Production and Survivorship (MAPS) stations around the country, as well as other bird research spanning from northwestern Alaska to Venezuela,” he says. “However, wrens are one of my favorite groups…great behavior and personality, really tough to band if you’re not careful, and relatively abundant in most areas we go.”

bird with nest material in its beat
A Carolina wren gathering nesting material. © Shawn Taylor / Flickr

For some birds living in urban areas, there are different challenges that they must overcome; one of those challenges is food. For the Carolina wren, the majority of their diet consists of spiders and insects such as grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets.

Malcom recalls an observation of foraging Carolina wrens while working from his home in Maryland which overlooks the Potomac River and Blue Ridge.

“Most of the time I’m on our patio where we let wildflowers grow up for pollinators and other critters,” he says. “Most mornings around daybreak, a pair of Carolina wrens will come through and work along the fence looking for new morsels for breakfast.  Spiders are probably a common treat for them, but resting pollinators like native bees, flies, and moths are all quite abundant.”

© Dennis Church / Flickr

Curiosity Helps the Wren

Unfortunately, the abundance of these insects are continuing to be impacted by urbanization practices, including pesticides.

Increased use of pesticides in urban areas decimate insect abundance. According to one recent analysis, more than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered. If this decrease continues, this will impact many species groups, including birds like the Carolina wren that rely on this food source. Although it seems that a small number of adaptable species of insects are increasing in number, this increase is still not nearly enough to outweigh the big losses.

Not only are wren’s primary food sources continuously impacted, but sometimes their ideal nesting locations in urban areas may also be scarce. These lack of nesting locations might also pose a challenge.

With both of these potential challenges, it appears to help in their favor that Carolina wrens seem to be very curious; they seem to have found ways to utilize both supplemental food and nesting resources to assist with their survival in urban areas.

brown bird perched with mouth open singing
© Dennis Church / Flickr

“Perhaps Carolina wrens’ habit of exploring human objects and structures for food predisposes them to be unafraid of unfamiliar objects,” says Dr. Jeremy Hyman, a biology professor at Western Carolina University.

Hyman, who completed his PhD work studying Carolina wrens, expresses his opinion about how urban areas may be impacting their food sources.

“As non-migratory birds, Carolina wrens have to deal with cold winter temperatures and snow. I imagine that as impervious surface increases, and vegetation cover and leaf litter decreases, the food supply, particularly in the winter, becomes too low to support a bird that forages primarily on the ground for arthropod prey.”

To combat low insect populations, some people will provide birds with food at feeders. One study found that Carolina wrens in urban areas benefit greatly from visiting feeders. By analyzing Carolina wren feeder responses in residential, city parks, and urban areas in a northern location, their findings proposed that wrens frequently visited feeders and that bird feeders in general were helpful, especially during the winter months when insect populations were lower.

brown bird eating at a bird feeder
© Steve Droter / Chesapeake Bay Program / Flickr

In urban areas, wrens have become versatile nesters and have gotten creative when it comes to their nesting locations. One recent study noted some to build their nests in garden pots. They have also been known to nest in other peculiar places such as mailboxes and even shoes left outside for long periods of time! wrens may particularly like starting nests in reusable shopping bags hanging from a rack or find nooks and crannies in shelf storage areas if the garage door gets left open. They might even seek shelter under cars or even in spare tires.

“I live in a very rural, highly forested neighborhood, and the last 2 years in a row, Carolina wrens have nested successfully in the spare tire on the back of my car,” recalls Hyman. “Luckily, I didn’t have to drive much this summer.”

bird feeding young inside pot plant
A wren feeding it’s young inside a pot plant. © RUFUSLHWD / Flickr

Welcome Wrens with Feeders and Nests

Although the Carolina wren seems to have things under control, humans can still continue to help them out. Continuing to provide alternate food sources (such as bird feeders) is one way. Providing more nesting locations such as nest boxes provides another choice when choosing a safe and secure nesting location (read more on Carolina wren nests in my next blog post).

Although the use of feeders and humanized nesting locations seem to be assisting Carolina wren’s living in urban areas, it does not mean these little birds are guaranteed a secure future. There is no single metric used to measure urbanization, and therefore, there are several problems associated with determining a species’ success. For instance, other aspects of avian survival caused by a growing urban population affecting Carolina wrens as well as other birds include migration, predation, and communication between species.

There is no doubt that these interactions exhibited in urban and suburban areas by the Carolina wren open up new research opportunities to explore other potential behaviors and interactions in other species of birds. What are other species possibly doing to adapt to urban areas, and more importantly, why do they choose to stay?

“Like the Carolina wren, other species may seem predisposed to do well in urban areas,” says Hyman. “More research might be required to understand if there are ecological correlations which explain why some birds may not show any indications to flee.”

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22 comments

  1. Last spring I had a Carolina Wren starting a new on the top of my garage door opener when I left the garage door open for a few hours. My dad had a wren make a nest in the grill of his truck. Tallahassee, FL

  2. Great broad scope of info, I feel my Bird Dork personality rejuvenated, time to carry my binoculars everywhere again, and I’ll definitely sign up for the Backyard Bird Count- living in a high elev. primarily undeveloped area of the Siskiyou Mtns in SW Oregon gives me an opportunity to shed light on an area that probably doesn’t get monitored or counted as heavily as he suburban valley below. Thanks!

  3. We have Carolina Wrens many years we have had up to 6 pairs at onetime nesting. We have doves,
    cardinals, blue jays, and many more species.

  4. I have a few Carolina Wrens around my house year round. They are a joy to watch. I love it when they hunt and peck around and on my windows and brick as they look for insects. Also, they have a distinct sound to announce their whereabouts. They seem to get along fine with all the other birds. Joyful!!

  5. Interesting, thanks. I had them nesting in my garage for a number of years. But not so much now since I’ve been caring for cats, unfortunately….

  6. My Wrens spend the winter under the deck, know their names, and come to the window for their peanuts.

  7. I have found Carolina Wrens communicating more and louder than the other birds in the Pender County, NC game lands I bird in. Their loud calls and songs carry through the trees & understory.

  8. We have a Carolina raising her “brood” in our mailbox, which is on our porch. We’ve only seen the mother bird and are wondering if the dad is anywhere in the picture. We love watching her come every day to feed her babies.

  9. They took over my owl box! It must be like a mansion to them.

  10. I have been watching one of these adorable creatures over the past few days, build a nest in a flower pot! Your article was informative and very accurate!

  11. My wife and I had the wonderful experience to see two Carolina wrens build a nest in a small shopping bag. The bag was on the second shelf of an outdoor bookshelf that we us for gardening. We don’t know how long they were at it. but. we observed them for several weeks. The were so industrious and came back and forth every day. This was in early May here in Florida.
    When the weather turned hot(92 degrees) they disappeared one day and we have not seen them again.
    We think they went to a cooler location.
    Anyone got any ideas???

  12. I have one nesting in a clay pot right outside my back door with 4 eggs! It’s exciting to watch her and I believe eggs will be hatching soon. I also see the male close by.
    Eustis, fl

  13. For two years now Carolina Wrens have nested in one of our kayaks on the storage rack. They are stored opening down so it makes for a totally weather proof nest location for them. Can’t use that kayak for a while but don’t mind as they are cool little characters to have around.

  14. I found this article to be very interesting in that I have a covered cabana attached to my dock on a lake here in western North Carolina. Earlier this Spring, I had an old plastic bucket containing some rope, a can of insect repellant, and a few other items. While absent from my dock for approximately three days; I came back one day to find a Carolina wren nest already built and being attended by the mail and the female. The family has been here now for some time and the mom and dad are feeding their young while I sit not six feet from the bucket and watch. Am now curious as to how the young will get out of the bucket and fledge. I have take photos and posted to facebook.
    Thank you for the article.

  15. I *think* it’s a Carolina Wren ‘couple’ who has moved into the birdhouse we intended for Eastern Bluebirds. If I submit a picture, can someone confirm or deny? It looks like they now have a brood of 3 or 4 young babies in there.

  16. We have a plant rack on out back deck which is against the wall of the house. We keep the watering can and some spice plants on it. We put a nine pack of coleus on the rack until we had time to plant them in the garden. Too late two Carolina wrens took this as a good place to build a nest which they did in three days. They are now raising five chicks in the nest. We are just going to let the wrens have the pack of coleus and see if they renest after these chicks are fully raised. We are in Mt. Pleasant, sc

  17. We had a wren pair nest above our back door. They had 2 babies in the nest. One hopped out way too early…3 times! I put him back in the nest each time but he wanted out. He could not fly yet, so we put him in a large enclosure with a makeshift nest that he loved. It was under the nest. Parents continued to feed him. On day 3, he flew high enough to get out of his enclosure. I saw a parent on the fence, watching her baby loose. She lured him to one of our trees. He could not fly high enough to be with her, so I placed him on the branch. I told him to be careful and left him with a lump in my throat. I will now put out a peanut/blueberry suet block for them.

  18. We have both Carolina and house wrens in our backyard. We don’t see them at our feeders, probably because we feed only black oil sunflowers seeds. What seed are favorites for wrens?

  19. I live in Western MA and though I’ve seen wrens before, they’ve never stuck around past early spring. This year I had a pair stick around, nesting somewhere on my neighbor’s property, and I would hear them vocalizing and see them flitting around. I believe they hatched a brood elsewhere before setting up shop midsummer in the purely ornamental birdhouse on the front of my house. I enjoyed watching these dedicated parents and was fortunate enough to see the babies take first flight. I didn’t see any of them for a few weeks, but now they’re back at the feeders and they appear to be overnighting in a hanging begonia. Great little birds.