Bent Life History of the Canyon Wren
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Canyon Wren - the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
CATHERPES MEXICANUS ALBIFRONS (Giraud)
Four races of this species were recognized in the 1931 Check-list, and five were recognized by Ridgway (1904); one of these is strictly Mexican; and recent investigations have indicated that only two forms should be included in our Check-list. The type race, Catherpes mexicanus mexcanus, inhabits the central and southern portions of the Mexican Plateau. According to the above authorities, C. m. albifrons occupies the northern portion of the Mexican Plateau and extends its range into central western Texas, near the mouth of the Pecos River. Recent faunal investigations have extended this range considerably. Van Tyne and Sutton (1937) referred to this race the canyon wrens collected in the Chisos Mountains in Brewster County; and Burleigh and Lowery (1940) collected a number of specimens of it in the Guadalupe Mountains, close to the New Mexico line. Both of these localities are far removed from the mouth of the Pecos River where it empties into the Rio Grande. It seems fair to assume that this will prove to be the breeding form throughout the whole of extreme western Texas.
According to Ridgway (1904), this subspecies is similar to the type race in size, with a bill averaging longer, but the coloration is "much paler, the general color of upper parts more grayish brown chestnut of abdomen, etc., paler, and black bars on tall averaging narrower."
The specimens collected in the Chisos Mountains were taken mainly between 5,000 and 6,000 feet elevation, and in the Guadalupe Mountains at elevations ranging from 6,000 to 8,000 feet; in the latter locality this wren "was never known to venture to the foot of the mountains."
Nesting: The nesting habits of the white-throated wren are apparently not different from those of canyon wrens elsewhere. There is a set of four eggs, with the nest, in the Thayer collection in Cambridge that was taken in Nueva León, Mexico, on April 12, 1911, for F. B. Armstrong. It was in a snug corner of a crevice in the rock on the perpendicular wall of a canyon, about a hundred feet from the base of the cliff. The nest is made of mosses, lichens, and wool, with a few weed stems and strips of inner bark; and it is profusely lined with soft plant down and a little wool. In its present condition it measures about 4 by 4½ inches in outside and 2 by 2¼ inches in inside diameter; it is about 1¾ inches high and is cupped to a depth of 1 inch.
Eggs: The eggs in the above set are ovate and slightly glossy. Their ground color is pure white and they are sparingly sprinkled with very small spots or fine dots of light reddish brown, more thickly distributed near the larger ends. They measure 19.1 by 14.4, 19.3 by 14.1, 19.0 by 14.3, and 18.5 by 14.2 millimeters.
Plumages: Ridgway (1904) says that the young of the Mexican race are "similar to adults, but upper parts more coarsely vermiculated with dusky and with few if any white specks or dots; chestnut of abdomen, etc., duller, immaculate, or with very indistinct narrow dusky bars, mostly on flanks."
Voice: The following attractive tribute to the song of the canyon wren by Dr. William Beebe (1905) also refers to the Mexican subspecies:
The beautiful little wren-sprites of the barranca were the first to waken and sing, and we hardly recognized in them the Mexican Canyon Wrens of the house tops of Guadalajara. Here they were in their native haunts, and their marvellous hymn of sweetness rang out frequently In the early morning, re-echoing among the rocky cliffs. We caught the real inspiration of the wild joyous strain, which was so obscured and fitted so ill with the environment of the dusty city. It is a silvery dropping song of eight or ten clear sweet notes, becoming more plaintive as they descend, and ending in several low, ascending trills. The silvery quality is of marvellous depth and purity, and although at times the birds sang with startling loudness from the very ridgepole of the teat, there was not a trace of harshness or aught save liquid clearness. It seemed the very essence of the freshness of dawn in the cool bottom of the canyon. The little singer was not easily detected in the gray light, but at last his tremulous white throat was seen high overhead at the entrance of some dripping, mossy crevice in the rocks, his tiny body and wings of dark chocolate hue merging into the background.
As the sunlight traveled slowly downward toward us, the notes flowed more slowly from his throat, until, with the increasing warmth, only a few sleepy tones were heard: like the last efforts of the dying katydids at the time of the first frost. But the wren himself was far from sleepy. The heat had simply thawed the frozen music from his heart and he now began the serious work of the day.
Of all the birds of the barrancas these wrens perhaps won our deepest affection; so tiny were they, and yet each morning filling the whole great gorge with their sweetness.
Range: Western United States and Mexico, nonmigratory except for a slight altitudinal movement.
The canyon wren ranges north to central southern British Columbia (Okanagan Valley north to Naramata); Washington (Sheep Mountain and Nighthawk); Idaho (Lewiston and Salmon River); Montana (Billings); and Wyoming (Newcastle). East to Wyoming (Newcastle and Laramie); Colorado (Boulder, Golden, Manitou, and western Baca County); Oklahoma (Black Mesa near Kenton and Wichita Mountains); south-central Texas (Austin, Boerne, and San Antonio); Tamaulipas (G6mez Farias); Veracruz (Chichicaxtle and Jico); Puebla (Puebla and Atlixco); and Oaxaca (Cuicatlan and Tehuantepec). South to Oaxaca (Tehuantepec and Santo Domingo) and Guerrero (Taxco and Chilpancingo). West to Guerrero (Chilpancingo); Colima (Rfo de Coahuyana); Baja California (La Paz Laguna Hanson, and Los Coronados Islands); California (the coast range as far north as San Francisco Bay, Escondido, Pasadena, San Jose, Baird, and Mount Shasta); Oregon (eastern slope of the Cascades, Ashland, Brownsboro, and the mouth of the Deschutes River); Washington (Wishram, Yakima, and Chelan); and British Columbia (Okanagan Valley).
The range as outlined is for the entire species, of which two subspecies or geographic races are now recognized in the United States. The typical race (C. m. mexicanus) is confined to Mexico; the white-throated wren (C. m. albifrons) occurs from central western Texas, near the mouth of the Pecos River, south over the Mexican Plateau to Zacatecas; the canyon wren (C. m. conspersus) occupies the rest of the range in the United States and British Columbia.
Casual records: Two specimens were collected, adult and young, August 2 and 6, 1935, in Spearfish Canyon, S. Dak., the first record for the state; one was seen August 12, 1903 in the canyon of the White River, Sioux County, Nebraska, between Glen and Andrews; a specimen was collected on November 23, 1906, near Cheyenne Wells. Cob.
Egg dates: Arizona: 6 records, April 18 to June 12.
California: 68 records, March 28, to July 11; 34 records, April 21 to May 17, indicating the height of the season.
Colorado: 2 records, May 8 and June 9. Texas: 20 records, March 4 to June 19; 10 records, April 8 to 30.
CATHERPES MEXICANUS CONSPERSUS Ridgway
On April 17, 1922, we drove down from the rough roads of the Catalina Mountains, Ariz., and pitched camp in the heart of Apache Canyon, one of the grandest and most beautiful of the canyons we had seen. Near our camp the floor of the canyon was broad and fairly smooth, though stony; it was watered by a clear mountain stream that flowed gently over a wide, stony bed; it was well shaded by gigantic and picturesque sycamores and by enormous cottonwoods whose lofty, spreading branches reminded us of our familiar New England elms. A zone-tailed hawk had a nest in one of the cottonwoods and greeted us with anxious cries.
Early the next morning we were awakened by the melodious songs of Arizona cardinals and by the Cassin's kingbirds' loud, striking notes, "come here, come here," as they flitted about in the big white sycamores over our heads. Above our camp we found the canyon to be heavily wooded with cottonwoods, sycamores, a variety of oaks, maples, walnuts, and other trees, in which red-tailed and Cooper's hawks had their nests. The sides of the canyons were rough and rocky, in some places very steep or even precipitous, and more or less overgrown with hackberries, thorns, mesquites, and mountainmisery, where these and small giant cacti could find a foothold. We saw or heard a long list of interesting birds, but the gem of them all was the canyon wren. Its wild, joyous strain of sweet, silvery notes greeted us as we passed some steep cliffs; they seemed to reverberate from one cliff to another, to fill the whole canyon with delightful melody and to add a fitting charm to the wild surroundings.
The above is fairly typical of the haunts of this species, for most observers seem to agree it is well named as a dweller on the cliffs or the rocky slopes of the canyons, where it can dodge in and out among the numerous cracks, crannies, and dark little caves. But it is not wholly confined to such places and, has even adapted itself to living in human surroundings. George Finlay Simmons (1925) says that. in Texas, it is found about "old rock buildings in towns; less commonly, about houses and barns." It is "common in and about the city of Austin, and sings from the chimneytops with the Western Mockingbirds and Texas Long-tailed Wrens." Referring to this, Mrs. Bailey (1902) remarks that "when they do, what cool, grateful canyon memories they awaken in the midst of the town! When heard afterwards on their own native canyon cliffs it seems impossible that they could ever sing in a city, their song is so attuned to the wild mountain fastnesses." W. Leon Dawson (1923) writes: "There is no place forbidden to a Canyon Wren, no rock wall which frights him, no tunnel's mouth, nor intricacy of talus bed. He has no special predilection for the picturesque, however, as his name might seem to imply. A brush pile or a heap of old tin cans will do as well as a miner's cabin or an old Mission.”
This race of the species has by far the widest range of any of the forms of the species; and, if we eliminate punctulatus (See Grinnell and Behle (1985) for reasons why C. m. punctulatus is synonymous with conspersus.) and polioptilus, as modern research seems to indicate that we should, conspersus inhabits all suitable regions in western North America from the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific slope, except for the restricted range of albifrons in Texas. It differs but little from albifrons, being paler and smaller.
Nesting: We eventually found the nest of the pair we saw in Apache Canyon. It was in a small cave at the base of a rock cliff, and almost inaccessible in a crevice above a little shelf in the roof of the cave. Other nests have been found in similar situations. For example, Dr. Alexander Wetmore (1920) found a nest in a gulch near Lake Burford, N. Mex., of which he says:
The nest was placed on a small shelf of rock in the top of a shallow cave or hollow in a sandstone cliff. This ledge was about 15 feet from the floor of the gulch, and the cave was approximately 3 feet high. * * * The nest measured 8 inches across the base and 3 inches tall. The cup containing the eggs was 2½ inches in diameter and 2 inches deep. The foundation was composed of a dozen or more small twigs upon which were placed moss and masses of spider webbing with bits of leaves, catkins and bud scales. The nest lining was composed of a heavy felting of sheep's wool, most of it white, though a few bits of dark brown wool were mixed through it. In addition, in the cavity containing the eggs, were a few feathers of Great Horned Owl, Violet-green Swallow and Cassin's Finch.
The nest has been said to resemble that of the wood pewee in shape and appearance, and W. E. D. Scott (1888a) says:
In the Catalinas I took in all half a dozen nests that were built much like the nest of the Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), the same thick, heavy walls, rather soft and covered with green moss on the outside characterizing the structure, and the inside cavity not so broad or shallow as In the case of the Phoebe. The nest is generally placed in some deserted tunnel or cave, and at times in unused buildings. It is found more frequently on some projecting ledge or shelf, and rarely in some cranny or hole that will scarcely permit the old birds to enter. The eggs are from four to six in number, and three broods are generally reared each season.
Mrs. Lila M. Lofberg (1931) has published an interesting account of a most remarkable nest of this wren, which she studied intensively. She says: "Early last spring the men in the general office of the Southern California Edison Co. at Big Creek, Fresno County, wondered where all their clips, pins and such were disappearing to, when they discovered a pair of Cañon Wrens (Catherpes mexicanus punctulatus) were utilizing them in the building of their nest." After the wrens had left it, she took the nest home and analyzed the wonderful collection of varied materials that entered into it; the energy and industry displayed by the birds in gathering the materials and building the nest was hardly exceeded by the patience and painstaking care shown by her in pulling it to pieces. Here is her description of it:
The foundation, 4½ inches in height and 5 inches square at the base, contained the following items: 152 twigs and slivers of wood ranging in length from ¾ to 8¾ inches, with a diameter or breadth of from 1/8 to ½ inch; 15 lengths of straw, 1¼ to 8¼ inches long; 43 pine catkins; 4 pieces of wire insulation material, ½ to 2¼ inches long; 14 Supreme paper clips; 1 Ideal paper clip, 3 inches in length; 628 Gem paper clips; 14 T pins; 1 2-inch safety pin; 582 common pins; 28 rubber bands; 1 three-coil spring; 1 screw top from LePage's glue container; 11 steel pen points; 19 thumb tacks; 2 small screws; 11 galvanized cuphead tacks; 1 carpet tack; 2 insulation tacks; 67 rusty nails; 2 small pieces of rawhide shoe lace; 1 3-inch darning needle; 69 Star paper fasteners; 3 small pieces of insulated wire; 27 pieces of wire (5 copper), all short; 1 steel tape tip; 87 matches (three unburnt) ; 4 toothpicks.
This grand total of 1,791 countable things, while haphazardly placed, was held firmly by a filling of ½ pound of the following: Cobwebs, lint, dust, thread, sawdust, wood shavings, bits of paper, broom straw, twine, rope, plaster board, pine needles, splinters, shreds and pieces of pine bark, and asbestos, shells, and gauzy wings of insects, an air-mail label, horsehair, small pieces of walnut shell, triangle of glass (¼ inch base and 1 inch in length), and an Eversharp pencil lead.
The nest proper was so firmly fastened to the foundation that it was not easy to dislodge. It was 4 x 5½ inches with an outside depth of 3½ inches. It was composed of very small pieces of straw, pine needles, string, rope, thread, and twigs. It was a solid mat made by clever filling of dust, lint, and dog and horse hairs. The upper 2 inches were very soft, made entirely of padding filched from mattresses. Into this was hollowed the cup for the eggs, 2½ inches across at the rim and 1¾ at the bottom, the depth being ¾ of an Inch.
The nest proper weighed only an ounce, while that of the entire structure was 2 7/16 pounds.
Mr. Simmons (1925) says that, in the Austin region of Texas, the canyon wren nests "rarely, in holes in cedar fence posts, eaves of outhouses and rafters of barns, crevices about rock buildings, cross-braces underneath houses and cabins, under cornices of verandas, and in chimneys of uninhabited houses; before abundance of the European House Sparrow, nested in mail boxes as commonly as does the Texas Long: tailed Wren.”
Mrs. Amelia S. Allen tells me of a nest that "was placed inside a crude lean-to made of rusty oil cans. The rusty red of the wren matched exactly the color of the tin."
Eggs: The canyon wren usually lays 5 or 6 eggs to a set, sometimes only 4 and rarely more than 6. These vary from ovate to nearly elliptical-ovate. The ground color is pure, clear white. The eggs are usually very sparingly marked with fine dots of reddish brown, sometimes so faintly marked as to appear immaculate; more rarely the markings are small spots of darker brown, which even more rarely may be concentrated about the larger end. Apparently they are never as heavily marked as are other wrens' eggs. The measurements of 50 eggs of the canyon wren and the dotted wren combined average 17.9 by 13.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 19.8 by 13.7, 17.7 by 14.1, 16.8 by 12.7, and 17.5 by 12.6 millimeters. These were selected at random from the large series in the United States National Museum.
Behavior: Grinnell and Storer (1924) mention the following items that are not recorded under the other subspecies: "Like the Rock Wren, the Cañon Wren has acquired a special flatness of body structure, which is an obvious adaptation to allow it passage through horizontal crevices. * * * The bird's legs (tarsi) are short and are held at an acute angle with the surface on which it is travelling, so that the body is close to the substratum. At intervals of 2 to 12 seconds the hinder parts are slowly raised and then instantaneously depressed. So quickly and violently is this done that the whole body is drawn into the movement."
Young: Dr. Wetmore (1921) says of a brood of young that he observed near Williams, Ariz.:
On July 8 a female was found feeding young in the canyon south of town. The young, three in number, though not fully fledged, had left the nest and reposed at the bottom of a cleft in the rock in a space 2 inches wide. * * * The labor of caring for them seemed to be left entirely to the female, though the male was in the vicinity. The female came and went fearlessly carrying food, in the form of brown crickets with elongated antennae, paying little attention to me as I peered in the crevice with my face barely two feet away. After feeding she carried away excrement exactly as though the young were in the nest. The young were able to climb up and down the steepest rock surfaces with no difficulty whatever. When placed in the open, they became more alert and after a minute or so clambered away toward shelter. The heat of the sun, though apparently mild, affected them severely so that they panted heavily and closed their eyes seeming almost overpowered; it is probable that never before had they felt its rays. The call note for food was a faint tsee tsee.
Plumages: I have seen no very young canyon wrens. Young birds in juvenal plumage look much like the adults, but the colors are all duller; there are few if any white spots on the upperparts, which are more or less mottled or vermiculated with dusky; the rich brown of the abdominal region is paler and is immaculate rather than spotted. I have seen birds in this plumage as late as August 17 and 30, but usually the postjuvenal molt of young birds and the postnuptial molt of adults apparently occurs during the last two weeks of August and the first two weeks of September.
Food: No comprehensive study of the food of the canyon wren seems to have been made. It probably does not differ materially from the food of other western wrens, consisting mainly, if not wholly, of insects and spiders. Its feeding habits are evidently of no economic importance in its native wilderness, and, even when living in towns, it apparently does no harm and probably destroys many troublesome insects.
Behavior: The canyon wren is usually heard long before it is seen. We hear the loud, ringing song echoing from the walls of the canyon and scan the rocky cliffs to find the tiny source of such a soul-filling outburst of melody. We catch a glimpse of his gleaming white throat before we can make out the outlines of the bird, for the browns of body, wings, and tail blend well into the background of rocks. At first, as he creeps along some narrow ledge or dodges in and out among the loose rocks and crevices of the cliff, we may mistake him for a chipmunk or a white-throated mouse, so mouselike are his movements. Soon he stops in full view on some sharp prominence or even the crest of the cliff, throws back his head, his silvery throat swells, and out pours the delicious strain; and we are astonished to connect such a volume of sound with such a tiny bird.
The frequent outbursts of song are not allowed to interfere with the serious business of the day; much of the daylight hours must be spent in climbing over, under, and around the rocks, searching in every nook and cranny for hidden insects and spiders. The wren's feet, with their sharp claws, are well adapted for climbing, even over nearly perpendicular surfaces and over the roofs of small caves, much as a brown creeper negotiates the trunks and limbs of trees. All day long this tireless bundle of feathered energy explores it rocky domain, disappearing from sight and suddenly appearing again at some unexpected spot, jumping or flitting from one rock to another, its eyes ever alert for its tiny prey and its brown tail erect, spread or flirted to express its feelings.
The canyon wren is not particularly shy, merely somewhat elusive and busy with its own affairs. About ranches and houses it is often quite unsuspicious and friendly. W. E. D. Scott (1885), writing from Arizona, says: "During that portion of the year when we live with doors and windows open (and this is for fully 9 months), the little brown friend with silvery throat is often in the rooms of the house, hopping about and searching every 'nook and cranny' for insect life, and betimes singing as merrily as when on the faces of the perpendicular rocks in the cañons, which are ever the favorite hunting grounds he delights in." And Howard Lacey (1911), who lived in Kerrville, Tex., says that "for 2 years a pair lived with us in the ranch house and became very tame, hopping about the floor and even singing on the table while we were in the room. They nested over one of the windows."
Voice: Many authors have given the voice of the canyon wren unstinted and well-deserved praise, for its song is one of the best and most surprising of the many delightful songs of American birds. No song is quite like it, and when heard for the first time in the wild and desolate rocky canyons, to which it is a fitting accompaniment as it echoes from cliff to cliff, it creates an impression that can never be forgotten. No description is adequate to convey this impression to the reader, but the following quotations will give some idea of it. Mrs. Bailey (1902) writes: "His voice is so powerful that the canyon fairly rings with his song. What joyous notes! They sound as if his happiness were so great that he needs must proclaim it. His song comes tripping down the scale growing so fast it seems as if the songster could only stop by giving his odd little flourish back up the scale again at the end. The ordinary song has seven descending notes, but often, as if out of pure exurberance of happiness, the wren begins with a run of grace notes, ending with the same little flourish. The rare character of the song is its rhapsody and the rich vibrant quality which has suggested the name of bugler for him, —and a glorious little bugler he surely is." Ralph Hoffmann (1927) says: "From the bare grim walls of rock the Cañon Wren pours out a cascade of sweet liquid notes, like the spray of a waterfall in sunshine. The opening notes are single staccato notes followed by long-drawn double notes, tsee-i , tsee-i, slower and descending in piteh, ending with still lower tóo-ee tóo-ee tóo-ee." Mr. Simmons (1925) says that this wren sings from late February to November in Texas, and describes the call note as "a clear, ringing, rather measured, slightly quickened peupp, peupp, peupp, peupp, peupp, each slightly lower in key and pitch than the last, but never approaching a trill." Mr. Scott (1885) says that "the female sings quite as much as the male." Charles F. Batchelder (1885) calls the commonest winter note "a peculiar, loud, harsh, penetrating cry, not unlike the ordinary cry of the Nighthawk, and can be heard at a long distance. Besides this note I one day heard one repeatedly utter a sharp peá-body, the first syllable being rather prolonged and having the principal accent."
Field marks: The most conspicuous field mark of the canyon wren is the gleaming white throat, which extends well down onto the breast and contrasts strongly with the chestnut-brown abdomen; this latter feature will distinguish it at a glance from the rock wren, which is sometimes seen in somewhat similar surroundings. The rock wren's tail has a conspicuous black subterminal band and whitish tips, whereas the tail of the canyon wren has no terminal bands and only a few narrow dusky bars. The back of the canyon wren is dotted with whitish.