Monday, November 18, 2013

Winter Wrens

by Doug Reeves, assistant chief, DNR Wildlife Division

winter wrenI stood at the edge of a field not far from my home on a recent frosty fall morning. The sun, which was just coming up, was shining brightly and the sky was clear. I stood in the quiet stillness for a bit and felt the sun on my face as I just watched for signs of life in the field. A movement caught my eye, just 8 feet away or so. There, on a stump at the edge of the fencerow, was a tiny, chocolate-dark bird. It too was soaking in some sun and preening just enough to draw my attention. A winter wren! This one appeared even darker in color than most I had seen previously. I watched it briefly, marveling once again at how small winter wrens are and how dark they appear. The bird appeared completely unconcerned that I was on the scene. Its tail was cocked straight up much of the time, and the one shiny little eye that I could see glistened. There was serenity in the moment. [Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]

The honking of geese in the distance drew my attention and I glanced up to look for them. When I had located and counted them, I looked back for the wren, but it was gone. Such is often the case with winter wrens. One moment they are there, and the next they are gone. Often flitting around brush piles, among the roots of turned-out trees or along cut banks of streams where roots hang down from the sod, winter wrens are not birds of the treetops. They are seldom far from the ground, and my experience has been that they are often seen in or along the edge of deep woods. Their song is loud for a bird their size, and frequently they are the only bird singing in the middle of the day in those deep woods. Thus, their song seems even louder.

In Michigan, winter wrens are mostly birds of the northwoods during the breeding season. They are not long-distance migrators, heading only as far south as necessary for winter. I have observed them in the southern Lower Peninsula throughout the winter months, usually along the edge of very dense, shrub swamps. An apt description might be “hardy,” although they don’t stick around in the winter in the coldest parts of the state.

Most of my encounters with winter wrens have been brief and unintentional, but they are always a delight because there are few things as energetic as a wren. Their flitting about is such that I barely notice their wings moving as they fly and hop from one location to another. My most frequent encounters have come at the edge of cedar swamps in the northern two-thirds of the state. Just recently I observed a winter wren in an area where beaver had flooded out a cedar stand several years ago. Some of the trees had blown over and their root masses stuck up out of the ground. The wren hopped and flitted under cedar trunks, through the upturned roots of others, never getting over 4 feet above the ground. It zipped in and out of sight in probably less than 20 seconds.

House wrens, Carolina wrens, marsh wrens and sedge wrens are additional wren species that nest in Michigan. Each species is quite different from the others, and each has a role to play in the grand scheme of things.

Winter wrens are insectivores. They won’t be found feeding at a seed feeder around the house as a Carolina wren might. In fact, I would not characterize winter wrens as yard birds at all. Many people probably never see a winter wren because you have to be out in their kind of habitat to observe one. A few people probably do hear them while trout fishing or walking trail systems, but most folks probably just wonder what bird is singing and think little more of it. Don’t miss those opportunities. Listen carefully and figure out what it is that you are hearing and/or seeing. At some point you may encounter a winter wren. I bet you will be glad you did!

How can you help wildlife and their habitats in Michigan? There are several easy ways you can help conserve Michigan's wildlife and their habitats:
With increased funding to the Nongame Wildlife Fund, we can boost our efforts to conserve and manage Michigan’s wildlife. Join us in protecting the natural, wild and wonderful things that make MiNature.