Wild Ideas: A little snowbird is back

Although it is only four inches long, “per unit weight, the Winter Wren delivers its song with 10 times more power than a crowing rooster,” according to AllAboutBirds.org.Paul Stein via Wikimedia
Although it is only four inches long, “per unit weight, the Winter Wren delivers its song with 10 times more power than a crowing rooster,” according to AllAboutBirds.org.

Last week Rappahannock County got its first dusting of snow, but the coming of winter was heralded weeks before by the arrival of snowbirds — our feathered friends from farther north that spend the winter here in the relatively balmy South. Among them this year at my house was a tiny brown bird displaying unexpected behavior.

Some northern species that arrive in great numbers in central and eastern Virginia this time of year are year-round residents in the higher mountain elevations of Virginia’s western border. The first of the snowbirds to arrive where I live, on the border of Shenandoah National Park, were the white-throated sparrows. They announced their presence with their sweet, slow, four-note song. Small flocks of dark-eyed juncos then drifted into the old vegetable garden, now overgrown with an assortment of native and nonnative plants, to forage.

But it was the arrival of the aptly named winter wren that sealed the deal — winter was on its way. I heard rustling and chatting on the forest floor as I was walking down the driveway, and my first thought was “winter wren.” Like the junco, it is considered a ground forager, but its preferred habitat is among rotted logs in the damper portions of the forest floor. There it hunts for insects, millipedes, spiders and other invertebrates. The smallest of our native wrens, its full name is “eastern winter wren” (Troglodytes hiemalis).

I had written about T. hiemalis last winter in this column (Jan. 30), when I saw one hunting in the open spots created by a stream in the forest next to my house after one of the many snowfalls. The bird’s subtle coloring — rich brown, with a more subtle “eyebrow” mark than the Carolina wren — helps it blend in among the detritus on the usually brown forest floor. I started looking for the bird regularly there and was often rewarded.

This year, however, I was startled to see a winter wren gleaning insects under the eaves of my house. The first time I saw this, it happened so fast that I couldn’t believe it was actually that species. Knowing the winter wren’s preferred habitat and style of hunting, this seemed out of character and not like any of the winter wrens I’d seen last winter.

Then the bird returned several times to the house, clinging to window screens to scope out the bug situation before going after one. I got a good enough view to confirm the bird’s identity. Although this species is not big on flying, the one that’s been gleaning seems quite adept at darting up, hovering briefly, then grabbing its prey and flying off — every bit as adept at this as the phoebes that glean under the eaves during the summer.

Stepping out on my porch one day, a winter wren darted in front of me and flew into a deep crevice in the large locust tree at the edge of the yard, probably looking for insects there. When I tried to creep up on it for a better look, it darted out and flew across the driveway, back into the forest. This was probably the same wren gleaning under the eaves, but with this species’ subtle coloring and quick maneuvering, it was impossible to tell.

White-throated sparrows, another “snowbird” here, can be easily identified by sight and sound.Pam Owen
White-throated sparrows, another “snowbird” here, can be easily identified by sight and sound.

Although the winter wren is considered a ground forager, in digging around on the Internet, I ran across a study on the foraging tactics of birds in a northern hardwoods forest in the ornithological journal The Wilson Bulletin (Sept. 1988) that found that maybe this bird is not as “grounded” as it’s normally portrayed. Among the several birds studied that were considered “ground” foragers, the researchers observed the winter wren using the forest floor the least (less than 50 percent of the time) in hunting for food and that it actually foraged more in the shrub layer.

The wrens in the study went after prey on the bark of trees about half the time, but still low on tree trunks or exposed roots; most of the rest of their hunting was on fallen logs. So, although hover-gleaning under the roof eaves and in a tree more than a few feet off the ground may make this bird a Chuck Yeager among its species, the winter wren is obviously capable of feeding higher up than normally observed. And, like its cousins, wherever the winter wren goes and whatever it does, it displays a jaunty look and boundless energy, moving quickly through short flights and hopping.

Chatty, yes, but melodic?

Chatty the eastern winter wren definitely is, but can it carry a tune? Opinions among bird experts vary on this. Those of us who only hear the wren down here in the South, after its breeding season is over, are more likely to hear noisy chatter than anything that would win on “The Voice.”

Singing chops vary among individual wrens, but according to Forbush and May, the best of the winter wrens’ songs “rank high among our sylvan melodies.” Those songs, however, are most likely to be heard during the breeding season, in the North. Then, as Canadian naturalist Montague Chamberlain put it, “its wild melody break[s] the stillness of the bird’s forest home.” He showed admiration for the little bird’s power and “its capacity for brilliant execution,” but also for its “sweet and impassioned tones, and the suggestive joyousness of its rapid trills.” (To hear more than 100 recordings of the winter wren, go to online to Macauley audiovisual library at macaulaylibrary.org).

“An absurd little creature, its stub tail turned up over its back at the least provocation, until it seems as if the bird would tumble forward, pushed over by the efforts of its own tail, or overbalanced by the bobbing of its head,” Edward Howe Forbush and John Bichard May wrote about this wren in their wonderful 1955 book, “A Natural History of American Birds of Eastern and Central North America.”

The winter wren is also thought of as being shy and secretive — moving from cover to cover in an attempt to stay concealed, as Forbush and May describe it. In watching the birds several times last winter, I found they seemed to ignore me, industriously focused on their hunting, but any time I moved closer, they flew or hopped into concealment among the tumbled-down rocks and logs on the forest floor. Forbush and May even mention an account of one winter wren, when startled, swinging under the branch it was on and hanging upside down in an attempt to conceal itself.

Like other wrens, T. hiemalis is chatty, but, although it is only four inches long, “per unit weight, the winter wren delivers its song with 10 times more power than a crowing rooster,” according to AllAboutBirds.org. The winter wren seem to be constantly talking to itself or other wrens nearby as it hunts, and inevitably has the last word when intruded upon, before it disappears into hiding.

As Forbush and May note, even in its breeding grounds, the winter wren keeps on the move, avoiding attracting attention with its songs: “It keeps its own secrets. . . . you see the bird usually as a mere passing shadow in the underbrush and then it is gone.”

© 2014 Pam Owen

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 274 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”