Wrens in the Driveway

wrenWhat is it about wrens? While most birds are content to nest in the trees and shrubs around my house, the wrens seem to want to nest inside my house—or, at least, in my garage. The minute I open my garage door in the morning, they begin to flit in and out looking for that perfect spot among the boxes, bins, and baskets. My garage door stands open most of the day since my wife and I are home sheltering-in-place from the virus. The wrens are our only outside visitors and they keep pretty busy.

On Wednesday, March 18th, my wife removed a pile of leaves and sticks from an old dishpan on a shelf in the garage. We immediately suspected the wrens because they were still flying in and out of the garage every time we opened the door. In the wild, wrens are known to pile twigs, pine straw, and leaves into the nest cavities they choose. This provides a platform on which to build a soft-lined cup. The cup itself is built into a depression in the twigs and lined with soft materials like feathers, grasses and animal hair. Once the nest is complete, the female will lay from 3 to 10, white or gray eggs which they will incubate for up to two weeks.

coat rackA couple of days after we removed the debris that might have become a nest, I observed them carrying pine straw and leaves into an old coat rack next to the garage door. The coat rack held several extension cords that were coiled on its hooks and apparently made a great platform for a nest. What’s better, two of my yard hats—an expensive Tilley hat topped by an old bucket hat—provided a roof. It took two days of steady work for them to build a fine-looking nest. I was willing to give up the use of my extension cords and hats, but a bigger problem was apparent. The nest was inside my garage and I wasn’t willing to leave it open for the duration. So, I moved the coat rack a few feet and set it outside the garage. That’s the last I saw of the wrens.

My wife and I have long been bird watchers. We enjoy observing them, identifying them, and attracting them to our back yard. We also enjoy the exotic birds when we travel. Our bookshelves at home include volumes on the birds of Belize, Costa Rica, Canada, East Africa, and Britain and Europe. My wife is an artist and, after our trip to Belize a few years ago, she documented our experience by doing a large painting that hangs in our bedroom. It represents a lush, tropical landscape with a Mayan ruin in the distance. But the painting features birds—collared aracari, blue-crowned motmot, violaceous trogon, great kiskadee, and ferruginous pigmy owl.

During my own travels, I have searched for the elusive resplendent quetzal in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, marveled at the primitive hoatzin on a tributary of the Amazon river, and gingerly stepped over nesting blue-footed boobies in the Galapagos islands. But I receive at least as much pleasure observing the birds in my Southwest Georgia yard. In just the past week, I had to stop working in the back yard to watch a pair of Rufous-sided towhees scratching around in the leaf-litter. Later, I peered out my front door at the bluebirds catching insects on the front lawn.

Cedar waxwings at the birdbathOne afternoon, my wife called me to the back porch to see a flock of a dozen or so cedar waxwings that had piled one on top of one another into our concrete birdbath. That birdbath is frequently used for, of all things, bathing by mockingbirds, mourning doves, and others. It is also the source of bird fights. We recently watched a female cardinal chase two blue jays out of it and then saw a tiny bluebird chase away that female cardinal.

hummingbird

On a recent Thursday evening when we were eating dinner on the back porch. As the evening sun was setting behind me, I saw a distinctive shadow flitting across the brick wall of the house. It was our first ruby-throated hummingbird of the season. He was looking for the feeder that hung there last year. How in the world did he find that spot outside my kitchen window from wherever he had spent the winter? That evening, I prepared the simple syrup we keep in the feeder all summer and we have enjoyed the hummers ever since.

And our bird watching continues into the night with the serenade of barred owls hooting back and forth sounding like they are asking, “Who cooks for you?”

It took me a lifetime of travel to appreciate the fact that the birds that fly in and out of my backyard are as wild and exotic as any I have seen around the world. Birds represent the freedom we all yearn for, and they inspire in me an appreciation of nature. And then there are the contrary little wrens.

After seven days of watching the nest, I had decided the wrens had been abandoned it. But on Tuesday, March 31st, as I approached the coat rack in my driveway to move it back inside the garage, a wren flew out. She soon came back, and she has been sitting tight since then. A male wren has been delivering bugs to feed her.

Wrens, according to the Cornell University Bird Lab, prefer nest sites in open woodland. They tend to avoid heavily wooded areas where it’s hard to see predators coming. They will nest in old woodpecker holes, natural crevices, and nest boxes provided by humans. If they can’t find any of those spots, they will improvise. In my case, they liked an old coat rack at the edge of a South Georgia driveway.

nestMy Peterson Field Guide describes wrens as “small energetic brown birds; stumpy, with slender, slightly decurved bills; tails often cocked”. That cocked, upturned tail looks to me like a one-fingered salute—the sign of a haughty, “I’ll nest where I please” personality. They would nest on my living room bookshelf if I would leave the front door open. Wrens are persistent, resilient, and hopeful—just like I am trying to be. I should also be more like the bluebird of happiness that is catching bugs on my front lawn, but I am not quite there yet.

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