Lifelong lovers scavenge for food in the bushes. Bragging parents tweet about their youngsters who, in turn, stumble and fall flat on their faces. Loud music and flagrant trespassing threaten to disturb the peace. No, it is not the newest reality show; it is a day in the life of a Carolina wren. The show is free and playing in nearly every South Carolina yard.
“It is great theater, with more drama and more comedy than anything you can find on television,” says Matt Johnson, director of Bird Conservation and Engagement for Audubon South Carolina.
On April 3, 1948, the caramel-sauce-colored Carolina wren, with its distinctive cream “eyebrows” and perky tail feathers, replaced the mockingbird as the official bird of South Carolina. This was a wise decision on the part of the General Assembly, for many reasons. One is originality; five states currently claim the mockingbird as their state bird, but only South Carolina boasts the Carolina wren. Another reason is free advertising of a sort, since the wren can be found as far north as Canada, as far west as Texas, and as far south as Central America. With such a wide distribution, it is no wonder Carolina is on everyone’s mind.
Unlike many of its feathered friends, the Carolina wren does not migrate. It spends its 6-year life span in the same yard, or perhaps the one next door. Humans can take steps to make this relationship neighborly. When the time comes to build a nest for its expanding family, the monogamous Carolina wren sometimes uses nesting boxes. Matt advises installing the boxes on a dedicated pole inaccessible to nearby fences and branches, with a baffle guard underneath.
“You don’t want to put it on a fence where it looks like a Carolina wren buffet to a snake or raccoon,” says Matt.
Nesting boxes are nice, but the wren is just as likely to build its nests in grill covers, porch eaves, garage shelves, plant stands, and light fixtures. Matt explains that humans can help by exercising patience when this happens.
“They are one of those birds that I often tell people, ‘They like to nest where we would rather they didn’t.’ If you leave your garage doors open, a Carolina wren may very well decide to nest inside. People ask me what to do when a Carolina wren builds a nest somewhere like this, and my advice is that it will be over in a few weeks — let it happen.’”
The female lays her clutch of five to eight eggs, then incubates them for 12 to 16 days while the proud father-to-be supplies her with food. Each egg is creamy white with brownish spots concentrated toward the larger end, giving it a fashionable ombre appearance. Once the eggs hatch, both parents tend to the chicks for another 10 to 16 days before sending them out into the world. Carolina wrens raise up to three broods a year.
One of Audubon South Carolina’s missions is to make the state’s yards and communities bird-friendly. In the case of the Carolina wren, this includes educating the public to use native plants and trees — it is all about the bugs. Some non-native trees, such as the ginkgo tree, host only five species of caterpillars, which is a wren’s diet staple. The white or red oak may host as many as 500. More insects means healthier, more plentiful Carolina wrens.
“People hear ‘insects’ and they think mosquitoes, when in fact we are referring to the beetles and worms one doesn’t normally see,” says Matt. “You have to have plants that have insects in order to have birds.”
The Carolina wren provides the perfect excuse to leave your yard just a little messy here and there. Forgotten brush piles and low-lying foliage are the wren’s favorite hunting ground for caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, and other insects. Wrens also eat berries and small fruits.
In exchange for human hospitality, the Carolina wren provides musical entertainment. Almost all year long, one can hear the cheery teekettle-teekettle-teekettle song of the Carolina wren. This is no one-hit-wonder songster, however. One of the most vocal of its class, it counts at least five more songs on its playlist. One is a chirring noise that sounds somewhat like a muffled cricket. There is also a dit-dit ditty. Unlike some birds that sing only to attract a mate or defend territory, the wren sings year-round — just because. It makes an impressive amount of noise, especially given its small size.
“Carolina wrens are tiny birds with big personalities. They are the king or queen of the backyard,” says Matt. “At least, they think so.”