Bird Identification – The Marsh Wren

Hidden among the tall grasses and reeds along the creeks and rivers, lives the long-billed marsh wren, a nervous, active little creature that you know at a glance. With tail cocked up and even tilted forward toward her head in the extreme of wren fashion, or suddenly jerked downward to help keep her balance, she sways with the grass as it blows in the wind—a dainty little sprite. With no desire to make your acquaintance, she flies with a short, jerky motion (because of her short wings) a few rods away, then drops into the grasses which engulf her as surely as if she had dropped into the sea. You may search in vain to find her now. Like the rails, she has her paths and runways among the tall sedges and cat-tails, where not even a boy in rubber boots may safely follow.

But she does not live alone. Withdraw, sit down quietly for awhile and wait for the excitement of your visit to subside; for every member of the wren colony, peering sharply at you through the grasses, was watching you long before you saw the first wren. Presently you hear a rippling, bubbling song from one of her neighbours; then another and another and still another from among the cat-tails which, you now suspect, conceal many musicians. The song goes off like a small explosion of melody whose force often carries the tiny singer up into the air. One explosion follows another, and between them there is much wren talk—a scolding chatter that is as great a relief to the birds’ nervous energy as the exhaust from its safety valve is to a steam engine. The rising of a red-winged blackbird from his home in the sedges, the rattle of the kingfisher on his way up the creek, or the leisurely flapping of a bittern over the marshes is enough to start the chattering chorus.

Why are the birds so excited? This is their nesting season, May, and really they are too busy to be bothered by visitors. Most birds are content to make one nest a year but not these, who, in their excess of wren energy, keep on building nest after nest in the vicinity of the one preferred for their chocolate brown eggs. Bending down the tips of the rushes they somehow manage to weave them, with the weeds and grasses they bring, into a bulky ball suspended between the rushes and firmly attached to them. In one side of this green grassy globe they leave an entrance through which to carry the finer grasses for the lining and the down from last season’s bursted cat-tails. When a nest is finished, its entrance is often cleverly concealed. If there are several feet of water below the high and dry cradle, so much the better, think the wrens—fewer enemies can get at them; but they do sometimes build in meadows that are merely damp. In such meadows the short-billed marsh wren, a slightly smaller sprite, prefers to live.