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Winter Wren

A small bird species with a brownish plumage, a distinctive upright tail, and a loud, complex song, and it is commonly found in forests and woodlands across much of North America and Eurasia.

The Winter Wren has an outsized song for such a small bird. It is migratory in parts of its range and a permanent resident in others. Winter Wrens are nocturnal migrants, but little else is known about their migratory behavior. There are many records of Winter Wrens colliding with towers at night during migration.

Male Winter Wrens select the nest site and build the nest, although the female provides the nest lining. Nest parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird has not been recorded, although nests in Europe and Japan are parasitized by cuckoos.

Length: 4 inches
Wing span: 5 inches

Photograph © Greg Lavaty

Description of the Winter Wren


Winter Wren


Photograph © Greg Lavaty

The Winter Wren has dark brown upperparts, brownish underparts, a buffy line above the eye, heavy black barring on the flanks and crissum, and a very short, barred tail that is usually held cocked upright.


Female Winter Wren

Photograph © Greg Lavaty

Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles are similar to adults.


Winter Wrens inhabit coniferous forests and brushy undergrowth.


Winter Wrens primarily eat insects; rarely berries.


Winter Wrens forage by hopping on trunks, branches, or on the ground.


Winter Wrens breed from Alaska south to parts of the West Coast and northeastern states, and Appalachians.  They winter throughout much of the eastern U.S. They also occur in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The North American population may be declining in the west and increasing in the east.

Fun Facts

Winter Wrens are small and secretive, usually staying low to the ground, but sometimes singing from higher perches.

Winter Wrens are often mentioned as having one of the best songs of North American birds.

Male Winter Wrens may build a number of “dummy” nests, from which the female chooses the one to be used.


The song is a long, complicated series of tinkling notes and buzzes.

Similar Species

  • Bewick’s Wrens have a bold white eyeline, and Carolina Wrens have unmarked, buffy-orange underparts and a white throat. House Wrens are grayer, and not as heavily barred on the flanks and crissum.


The Winter Wren’s nest is made of weeds, moss and other materials. It is placed in a low tree cavity, within an upturned root ball, or other opening.

Number: Usually lay 5-6 eggs.
Color: White with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 14-16 days and fledge at about 19 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for another several weeks.

Bent Life History of the Winter 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 Winter Wren – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



Although the winter wren breeds in suitable localities in some of the northern States, from western Massachusetts to central Minnesota, and as far south in the Alleghenies as northern Georgia, it is usually found there in only limited numbers. To many of us it is known only as a migrant, a furtive little mite, the smallest of its tribe, creeping mouselike about our wood piles or brush heaps, under the overhanging roots of trees along some woodland stream, or under the banks of marshland ditches. To see it, or rather to hear its tinkling, rippling song, to best advantage, we must visit its summer haunts in the cool, shady northern forests, where the sunshine hardly penetrates, where rotting stumps and fallen tree trunks are thickly covered with soft mosses, where dampness pervades the atmosphere near babbling woodland brooks, and where a luxuriant growth of ferns springs from the accumulation of rich leaf mold to nearly hide the forest floor. Here it finds a safe retreat from prying eyes, where its dark color, diminutive size, and retiring habits make it hard to find, until we hear its remarkable voice announcing its presence.

Henry Nehrling (1893) says that “in the Alleghenies where our most magnificent shrubs, rhododendrons, mountain laurel or kalmias and different azaleas fringe the streams and brooks and often cover whole mountain sides, lending to them an indescribable charm, this bird appears to take up its abode everywhere.”

Even on its breeding grounds this wren is sometimes seen in more open places; William Brewster (1938) has seen one among large boulders at the very edge of the water at Lake Umbagog and among the tall grass on the lake shore.

Spring: The winter range of this wren is so extensive, from New England to Florida, and the birds are so widely scattered at that season, that the spring migration is not conspicuous. Those that spend a short winter in the Southern States start early to join their companions that have wintered farther north. There is a gradual and a leisurely northward movement, as the birds drift along from bush to bush, through one gully after another, through woodland underbrush and windfalls, along the edges of swamps, and along old stone walls, always under cover where possible. Only when they come to some wide stream or open space must they spread their tiny wings and speed across.

They mostly pass unobserved, until we hear the fine silver thread of their delightful music and stop to seek them out. They follow close on the heels of retreating winter, waiting not for the full flush of springtime, and reach their breeding grounds in southern Canada fairly early in April, often while the ground is still frozen or covered with snow, and are soon singing merrily in their woodland haunts.

Miss Cordelia J. Stanwood (MS.) writes of the arrival of this wren in Maine: “About the middle of April, when the blossoming willows look like yellow flames amid the somber sprout growths and the last snow wraith has slowly transformed itself into a tinkling nil, the winter wren, the Spirit of the Brooks, is abroad. No one who has heard him sing will dispute the right of the little red-brown bird to this appellation.”

Nesting: I have never been fortunate enough to find a nest of the winter wren in its typical northern haunts, but I believe I have seen the only nest ever recorded in southeastern New England. Although this has already been recorded by one of the two men that were with me at the time (Hathaway, 1913), it seems worth while to describe it and its immediate surroundings, which, though out of its normal range geographically, were evidently suitable and congenial.

On May 24, 1908, Harry S. Hathaway, John H. Flanagan, and I were exploring the southwestern corner of Kingston Swamp in Rhode Island, searching especially for nests of the waterthrushes. This is a large, heavily wooded swamp; the portion that we visited was covered with a heavy, primeval deciduous forest, a cool and shady retreat, the dense foliage of the large trees shutting out the sunlight; the atmosphere was cooled by a steady flow of clear, cold spring water, about ankle deep nearly everywhere and in many places nearly knee deep; the current was perceptible all over the swamp, and in many places it was quite swift. The principal tree growth consisted of maples and swamp white oaks, many of which were of very large size; there were also many red oaks, beeches, white and yellow birches, ashes, a few solitary white and yellow pines, and some fine specimens of hollies. There was an undergrowth of saplings and shrubs, with numerous brakes and other ferns in the drier spots. The shade and dampness produced the conditions that the winter wren seems to require.

We had found a nest of the Louisiana waterthrush in the lower right corner of the upturned roots of a large fallen tree; the exposed roots were 5 or 6 feet in diameter, and the tree in falling had left a hole full of water more than knee deep. While we were photographing this nest, we were surprised to see a winter wren hopping about near the tree, with food in her bill. We withdrew to watch and soon saw her go to the same root and enter a small cavity, that we had not noticed, in the soil adhering to the roots. The nesting cavity was about 3 feet above the water in the upper left corner of the root and only 4 feet from the nest of the waterthrush. Here was a bird of the Carolinian fauna and one of the Canadian fauna nesting in the same stump, each near the extreme limit of its range! Furthermore, only a few yards away was an occupied nest of the northern waterthrush, a most interesting combination.

The front of the cavity, in which the wren’s nest was built, was completely filled with sphagnum moss, green but partially dry; the nest was made of soft grasses, reinforced with weed stems, fine twigs, and rootlets; it was lined with white hair, which we concluded must have come from a white-tailed deer, several wisps of which we found hanging in the woods. The nest contained six young, which we thought were about a week old. We saw the bird come to the nest again and feed the young with a large white caterpillar, while we were within 15 feet of her. Then she cleaned the nest and flew off with a white sack of excrement.

The upturned roots of fallen trees offer favorite nesting sites for these wrens, for when the tree falls the roots carry up with them large quantities of earth, in which many convenient cavities may be found. All six of the nests recorded in Owen Durfee’s notes from northern New Hampshire were in upturned roots. Among 35 nests of which I have descriptions, 18 were in the upturned roots of fallen trees, evidently a favorite choice. Seven nests were recorded as in or under rotten stumps, or under the roots of trees; in such situations the nests are well concealed, for old stumps and roots are usually covered with a luxuriant growth of moss, which matches perfectly the material with which the outer part of the nest is made; the small entrance bole is not easily seen and the nest resembles any other mossy mound. Verdi Burtch has sent me a photograph of a nest that was concealed in the roots of a tree overhanging a gully bank.

Although the nests are usually placed on or near the ground, well concealed, some few have been reported in other situations. There is a set of eggs in my collection, taken by E. H. Montgomery in Labrador from an old hole of a woodpecker, 8 feet from the ground. F. H. Kennard mentions in his notes a nest that was “placed in a roll of bark on the side of a huge yellow birch, about 5 feet from the ground.” Ore W. Knight (1908) says that the nests are “sometimes suspended from the branches of a spruce or fir tree even as high as ten feet from the ground. While these tree nests are more frequently the ‘mock’ nests, they sometimes lay in one of these and rear their brood.” Harry Piers (1898) found a nest near Halifax, Nova Scotia, in an unusual location: “It was simply a cavity in moss, in situ upon the face of a rock close to the shore of a small lake. This moss was constantly saturated with water which trickled from a bank above and slowly flowed over the stone on which the moss grew.” Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1874) mention a nest, found by William F. Hall in Maine, that was “built in an unoccupied log-hut, among the fir-leaves and mosses in a crevice between the logs. It was large and bulky, composed externally of mosses and lined with the fur of hedge-hogs, and the feathers of the spruce partridge and other birds. It was in the shape of a pouch, and the entrance was neatly framed with fine pine sticks.”

The nests are all much alike in construction; there is usually a base of fine twigs and coarse mosses, on which a bulky nest of various green and yellow mosses is built, reinforced with a few fine twigs of spruce or fir; the interior is well lined with the soft feathers of various birds and the fur of any mammal that is available. Knight (1908) gives the measurements of a nest before him as “outside from top to bottom 7 inches; depth of cavity inside 2 inches; diameter of entrance hole 1 inch; diameter of interior of nest 1¼ inches; from bottom of entrance hole to bottom of nest outside 4 inches; diameter of nest outside 4 inches.” This was evidently a long and narrow nest; the size and shape of the nest varies considerably as it must be adapted to the cavity it has to fill; but it is always a large nest for so small a bird; and always the entrance on the side is only just large enough to admit the little owner. Like some other wrens, the winter wren builds false nests, decoy nests, or extra nests, supposed to be built by the male; these are usually not lined.

Eggs: Four to seven eggs may constitute the set for the winter wren, but five or six are commoner. They are usually ovate in shape, less rounded than those of the chickadees, which they otherwise somewhat resemble. They are clear white, with small spots and fine dots of pale reddish brown, “cinnamon” to “hazel,” which are distributed more thickly, as a rule, near the larger end. Some eggs are very sparingly marked with the finest of dots, or are nearly immaculate. The measurements of 40 eggs average 16.7 by 12.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measures 17.8 by 12.7, 16.7 by 13.0, 15.2 by 12.7, and 15.7 by 11.9 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation for the winter wren does not seem to have been definitely determined, though it is probably the same as for the English bird, 14 to 16 days. Whether both sexes share this duty seems to be unknown also, but this is not surprising as it is so difficult to distinguish the sexes in life. Early and late breeding dates suggest that sometimes two broods are reared in a season.

William Brewster (1938) writes: “A brood of young scarce able to fly came about the camp this forenoon [Aug. 31]. They kept calling to one another as they dodged in and out among the fallen logs uttering a fine, wiry tree-e-e something like that of the small spotted thrushes. When I disturbed and scattered them they chirruped at me in soft tones. This chirrup is unlike any other bird call that I can remember.

I think it is peculiar to the young as the tree-e-e- certainly is. An old bird with this brood called tick, tick.”

Perley M. Silloway (1923) says of the behavior of the young: “It is interesting to watch these youngsters when disturbed. They scatter like young Bob-whites, some crouching in the sparse ground cover, while others may seek higher shelter. One was noticed clinging to the bare bark near the base of a large tree, like a growth on the bark, silent and watchful, seeking to avoid detection while the adults were scolding forcibly under cover near by and trying to draw the brood from the threatened danger.”

Miss Stanwood has sent me some very elaborate notes, based on her extensive observations on two nests of the winter wren, from which the following information has been gleaned. Apparently the male takes no part in building the nest, in incubating, the eggs, or in feeding the young while they are in the nest, though he encourages his mate by singing his most glorious songs in the immediate vicinity. He frequently approaches the nest in full song, calls the female off the nest and feeds her; he may, also, occasionally feed her while she is on the nest. He, apparently, assists in the care of the young after they leave the nest and while the family keeps together for some time.

The female feeds the young at frequent intervals; a large number of observations indicate that the young are usually fed at intervals varying from 2 to 5 minutes but often as frequently as once a minute; rarely the intervals between feedings were as much as 10 or 15 minutes. The feedings continue from dawn to dusk but are most frequent during the early morning hours. The food given to the young, as far as could be determined, consisted of moths, including spruce-bud moths and tan geometrid moths, craneflies, cutworms, caterpillars of various kinds, numerous small insects, and spiders. The female removes the fecal sacs as often as necessary, until the young are large enough to back up to the nest entrance and shoot their excrement over the edge. She broods the small young occasionally for periods of 2 or 3 minutes.

At one nest the young left when they were about 19 days old. “They had a soft, abrupt zee food call, which was very pretty and uttered constantly.” They traveled about in a loose family party, often passing close to the observer but paying no attention to her.

Plumages: The natal down, with which the nestling is only scantily covered on the dorsal feather tracts, is between “drab” and “hair brown”; in a young bird, about half grown, that I took from the nest referred to above, the last of this down still persists on the crown, where it is more than a quarter of an inch long. On this bird the juvenal plumage was well out, on the dorsal and ventral tracts; on the former it is “russet,” barred with dusky, on the flanks “sayel brown,” and on the breast pale buff, barred or mottled with dusky; the wing feathers were just beginning to break their sheaths. Dwight’s (1900) description of a bird in full juvenal plumage is similar, but he adds: “Wings darker and tail ruddier, both duskily barred, alternating on the outer primaries with pale buff, the coverts with whitish terminal dots. Flanks and crissum deep russet. Orbital ring and faint superciliary line dull buff.”

A partial postjuvenal molt occurs, beginning about the middle of August, involving the contour plumage and the wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings or the tail; in the first winter plumage adults and young are practically indistinguishable. Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in August but apparently no spring molt. The sexes are alike in all plumages.

Food: The winter wren is almost wholly insectivorous, and it is especially useful in consuming many of the woodland insects and their larvae which are more or less injurious to our forests. W. L. McAtee (1926a) writes: “Vegetable food is of practically no interest to the winter wren; the bird wants flesh and its choice of meat most commonly strikes upon such creatures as the beetles, true bugs, spiders, caterpillars, and ants and other small hymenoptera. By contrast grasshoppers, crickets, crane flies, moths, millipeds, and snails are minor items of food, and dragon flies, daddy-longlegs, mites, pseudoscorpions, and sowbugs are merely tasted. Forest insects consumed are bark beetles and other weevils, round-headed wood borers, leaf beetles, leaf hoppers, plant lice, lace bugs, ants, sawffies, and caterpillars.”

Arthur H. Howell (1924) says that, in the South, “the bird has been known to capture boll weevils.” And E. H. Forbush (1929) writes: “The winter wren feeds along the banks of streams, frequently pecking at something in the water, and sometimes in its eagerness to secure its prey, it immerses the whole head. It may thus secure water insects. Miss Mabel R. Wiggins informed me that at East Marion, Long Island, N. Y., on October 20, 1918, winter wrens were feeding on the berries of the Virginia juniper or red cedar.”

Behavior: The winter wren is a secretive little mite, the smallest of our wrens with the exception of the short-billed marsh wren. Because of its retiring habits, it is often overlooked and is probably more common than most of us realize, for it does not advertise itself in the tree tops or pose to pour out its delicious song from some conspicuous perch as so many songsters do. We must look for it, if we would find it, in its lowly retreats near the ground, in the tangles along old stone walls, in the brush piles, and about fallen trees, prostrate logs, and wood piles. But it is really not shy and often quite indifferent to human presence. If we sit or stand quite still near its retreat, we may see it hop up to some twig near us, perhaps within a few feet of us, bobbing or bouncing up and down, flirting its short tail, and eyeing us inquisitively, but fearlessly. Edward J. F. Marx (1916) tells of one that actually alighted on the side of his coat while he was standing motionless, clad in a brown suit; it may have mistaken him for a tree.

Taverner and Swales (1908) write of one that made itself familiar on their last day in camp at Point Pelee: “This last day one fellow became much interested in our tent and camping equipment. It explored the former several times thoroughly, searching every crevice. It examined our methods of packing, and sampled the crumbs of our commissary, gleaning from the cracks of the table, and seemed generally pleased with himself and us. Finally it flew to a neighboring brush pile and scolded us as we took down the tent and piled the things into the wagon.”

Although this wren may approach us fearlessly of its own free will, it is another matter for us to find it in its sylvan retreats. Its glorious song may lure us to catch a glimpse of the singer, but as we push our way through the forest tangles, the voice seems to re: treat before us; it leads us on, now here now there, but it always seems to come from somewhere else, and we are lucky if we catch a fleeting glimpse of the little brown bird.

One seldom sees a winter wren in open flight, but Wendell Taber (MS.) was favored with the following observation: “The bird was in a clump of catbrier at the top of a hank that shelved rapidly about 20 feet down to the Ipswich River. Ultimately the wren rose up in the air, but instead of heading inland and flying low it went out over the river and downriver until lost to view, flying at an altitude of 35 to 40 feet above the river and marshes. Shortly after the wren had attained its maximum height and started downriver, a bird came and pursued it until both were out of sight. The latter bird was not identified but was assumed to be a redwing.” This was on April 30, which suggests that the wren was probably on migration; the redwing may have been chasing what it mistook for a marsh wren, with which it is not on good terms.

Taber (MS.) and Richard Stackpole “watched a winter wren that seemed to have a regular route it covered. We were facing the open door of a barn. The narrow end of the barn was only a few feet to the left of the door and a brook paralleled the narrow end. We would see the wren disappear behind the barn, come out the open door, fly to its right to the brook, work the few yards down the brook, disappear behind the barn, and come out the open door again. The wren did this several times.”

Voice: The winter wren owes most of its charm and much of its claim to fame to its wonderful voice. Its charming song is a marvelous performance for such a tiny bird. To hear it coming from the shady depths of the northern forests is a delightful surprise, almost startling amid the silence of those dark sylvan aisles. Its variety is entrancing; the full rich song fairly bursts upon the ear with a tinge of nature’s wildness; and again, at close range we hear the soft whisper song, a subdued rendering of the same trills and cadences; we cannot place the singer, the music seems to come from everywhere, but we stand amazed and thrilled.

Bradford Torrey (1885) writes: “The great distinction of the winter wren’s melody is its marked rhythm and accent, which give it a martial, fife-like character. Note tumbles over note in the true wren manner, and the strain comes to an end so suddenly that for the first few tines you are likely to think that the bird has been interrupted. * * * The song is intrinsically one of the most beautiful.”

Rev. J. H. Langille (1884) refers to it: “Copious, rapid, prolonged and penetrating, having a great variety of the sweetest tones, and uttered in a rising and falling or finely undulating melody, from every region of these ‘dim isles’ this song calls forth the sweetest woodland echo. It seems as if the very atmosphere became resonant. I stand entranced and amazed, my very soul vibrating to this gushing melody, which seems at once expressive of the wildest joy and the tenderest sadness.

Aretas A. Saunders (1929b) analyzes the song as follows: “There is usually a long trill in the middle of it, which is followed by a short note of lower pitch. I found that the majority of the songs were of three parts, the first ending with the trill and its short note; the second was a repetition of the first; and the third, a sort of termination in which there were usually no trills. The notes follow each other so rapidly that it is hard to catch them all, but there are often 30 to 50 notes, in addition to the trills, in a single song.”

Albeit R. Brand (1935 and 1938) made careful studies of the songs of many birds by recording bird sound on motion-picture film, giving us much valuable information on the subject. He found, on his two records of the winter wren’s song, that the length of the song varied from 6.72 to 7.17 seconds, as against less than 2.5 seconds for the song of the song sparrow; the wren’s song contained from 106 to 113 separate notes, compared with 35 or 36 for the sparrow. “Two songs of the Winter Wren studied under the microscope show that an average of 16 distinct notes with a corresponding number of distinct stops were produced each second” (1935). He also found that the wren’s song is very high in frequency, or pitch, exceeded only by the grasshopper sparrow and a few other birds, mostly warblers. The grasshopper sparrow, with one of the highest notes recorded, has an average frequency of 8.600 cycles, or vibrations, per second and a maximum of 9,500. The winter wren has an average frequency of 5.000 cycles and a maximum of 8,775 in its highest note. Out of some 55 birds that he lists only 12 have a higher average frequency than the winter wren.

The active song period of the winter wren extends through spring and through much of summer, up to the first week in August or later.

It is rarely heard singing on the fall migration, or even in winter. In its breeding haunts it sings all day and occasionally into the evening. In addition to its song it has a variety of chirping notes or alarm notes, which have been recorded as churp, or chick, or crrrrip by different observers. Saunders (1929a) says: “Its alarm note may be written ‘trrip’ or ‘tree’. Another note has been written ‘quip-quap’.”

Since the above was written, Mr. Saunders has sent me the following additional notes on the song: “The song consists of warbles, rapid notes, and trills interspersed in a great variety of ways. Every song I have recorded contains at least one trill and commonly two or three. Only one contains more than four, but that one contains eight. In 13 of my records the song ends on its highest note, often terminating in a series of rapid notes, so high that they lose their sweet quality and become squeaky.

“My records show the lowest-pitched note to be D”’ and the highest G’’’’, a range of two tones more than an octave and extending 3½ tones higher than the highest note on the piano. The average song ranges 3½ tones, but some only 2 tones and one 13 tones, going one-half tone over the octave in range.

“The great majority of songs are 8 seconds long, or very near it. I have one of nine seconds, and several shorter ones, the shortest being five seconds. But even this one is considerably longer than most bird songs, if we except the long-continued singers. Songs often contain short pauses. Some of them, however, according to my ear, are continuous throughout, while others contain two or three pauses and others 20 or 25.”

Wendell Taber tells me that he “watched a winter wren singing. At first the bill is open and moves somewhat, then the bill is stretched unbelievably wide open, and the full last half, or more, of the song pours out with all its many variations of notes, during which period the bill remains motionless.”

Francis II. Allen (MS.) mentions two notes of the adult, a chrrrr with a rising inflection, and a call, or alarm note chut very suggestive of the song sparrow’s familiar note, but repeated once or twice, whereas the sparrow’s is single; he calls the note of the young chi-chi-chi-chi, etc., “suggesting a miniature belted kingfisher.”

Field marks: The winter wren and the short-billed marsh wren are the smallest wrens, both among the smallest of birds in eastern North America, but the former is much darker and has a much shorter tail, which is often carried erect or even pointed forward, and the light line over the eye is not very conspicuous. The bobbing habit of the winter wren is characteristic.

Enemies: Mr. Forbush (1929) reports the following incident, which seems rather unusual; he says: “Mrs. Mary P. Hall writes that on September 30, 1926, she saw several winter wrens very much excited about something. They hardly noticed her, and as she came near she saw a chipmunk running with a bird in its mouth. The little squirrel sprang from the stone wall and went up a tree, dropping the bird as it did so. She picked up the victim, a winter wren.”

Fall and winter: This little wren may have derived its name from the fact that a few hardy individuals venture to spend the winter in the northern States and even occasionally in southern Ontario. During mild winters they manage to make a fair living in the more sheltered places, but in severe winters many of them may perish from hunger and cold, especially when their meager food supply is buried under a blanket of deep snow. Mr. Forbush (1929) says that their dead bodies are found occasionally under piles of lumber or wood. Dr. John B. May told him that, at his summer camp in New Hampshire, “on two different occasions winter wrens entered his camp buildings through knot-holes in the walls, and, unable to find their way out again, perished, their shriveled bodies being found in the buildings the next spring.”

In January 1871, Mr. Brewster (1906) “found one in Waltham (Mass.), that had taken up its abode in an old, disused barn which it entered by means of a conveniently placed knothole and from which it made short excursions in search of food along a neighboring wall.”

Most of the wrens, however, migrate southward during the fall. We look for them in Massachusetts during the first cold weather in October. At this season they are often seen in the more open places and in some unexpected situations. They are occasionally seen about houses and gardens in towns and villages, and they even wander into the cities. I have seen one in my yard in the center of the city of Taunton, within a hundred yards of brick buildings. And Mr. Brewster (1900) reports one that was discovered, on October 15, 1899, “crouching in the shelter of one of the massive granite columns which support the front of the Boston Custom House.”

In the southern Alleghenies there is a downward migration from the coniferous forests on the mountain tops late in fall. Referring to Mount Mitchell, in western North Carolina, Thomas D. Burleigh (1941) says of the winter wren: “Breeding abundantly in the thick fir and spruce woods at the top of the mountain this hardy little bird lingers in the fall until winter blizzards force it to a lower altitude. The first hint of milder weather sees its reappearance, so for 10 months out of the average year it can be found on the higher ridges. Exceptional winter will influence its movements to a certain extent, but it can invariably be seen on Mt. Mitchell from the latter part of March until the middle of November, and has been recorded there as early as February 6, 1931, and as late as December 6, 1982.”

Dr. Eugene E. Murphey (1937), writing of its haunts in the middle Savannah Valley, says: “In many places throughout the valley, cypress and hardwood have been logged out, leaving behind scattered deciduous trees and a vast array of stumps about four feet in height which are overgrown with matted vines and brambles and a fairly thick growth of ground-loving and creeping plants, including many ferns. Here the Winter Wren spends his sojourn.”

M. G. Vaiden, of Rosedale, Miss., writes to me that this wren seems to be from “fairly to very common here during winter in suitable localities, such as dry open woods.” Throughout the other Gulf States and northern Florida, the winter wren frequents mainly the brushy woodlands and is very quiet and retiring in its habits. While Arthur H. Howell (1924) was hunting geese on an island near Muscle Shoals, “one of these little wrens also spent the day there, dodging about in a pile of brush and running in and out of a log pile. He scarcely moved 10 feet all day and often came within 3 or 4 feet of” Mr. Howell’s face without showing any signs of alarm.


Range: In America from just north of latitude 60° south almost to the southern limits of the United States.

Breeding range: The winter wren breeds north to Alaska (Aleutian Islands, Pribilofs, and Kodiak Island); southern Mackenzie (Great Slave Lake); southern Manitoba (Hillside Beach); northern Ontario (Lac Seul, Moose Factory, and Lake Abitibi, probably); southern Quebec (upper St. Maurice River and Godbout); and Newfoundland (Bard Harbor). East to Newfoundland (Bard Harbor and Nicholsville); Nova Scotia (Halifax and Seal Island); northern Massachusetts (Winchendon); Rhode Island (Kingston); New York (Adirondack and Catskill Mountains); and through the mountains to northern Georgia (Brasstown Bald). South to northern Georgia (Brasstown Bald); western Maryland (Accident); northern Michigan (Douglas Lake, Blaney, and Palmer); northern Minnesota (Onamia and Cam Lake); northwestern Montana (Flathead Lake); northern Idaho (Cocur d’Alene); and southern California (Portersville). West to California (Portersville) and north through the Sierra Nevada and the coastal ranges of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to Alaska (Aleutian and Pribilof Islands).

Winter range: The winter range is discontinuous. The western range extends north to southeastern Alaska (Craig and Juneau casually); and southern British Columbia (Comox and Okanagan Landing). East to southern British Columbia (Okanagan Landing) through western Washington (Olympia and Camas); western Oregon (Beaverton and Sweet Home); and the Sierra Nevada in California. South to southern California (Santa Barbara and San Dimas Canyon); and west to the Pacific Ocean.

The eastern section of the winter range extends north to southeastern Nebraska (Hastings and Omaha); central Missouri (Warrensburg and St. Louis); Ohio (Toledo and Cleveland); southern Ontario (Toronto); Connecticut (Hartford); and Massachusetts (Taunton). East to Massachusetts (Taunton and Woods Hole); and through the Atlantic coast States southward to Florida (New Smyrna). South to central Florida (New Smyrna, Orlando, and casually to St. Lucie); the Gulf coast to eastern Texas (Giddings and Victoria). West to eastern Texas (Giddings and Bonhain); eastern Oklahoma (Caddo); eastern Kansas (Clearwater and Manhattan); and eastern Nebraska (Hastings).

The above range applies to the entire species in North America. It has been broken up into 10 subspecies or geographical races. The eastern winter wren (T. t. hiemalis) breeds from southern Alberta and Minnesota east to the Atlantic coast and south to West Virginia. The southern winter wren (T. t. pullus) occurs in the southern Appalachians from Virginia to Georgia. The western winter wren (T. t. pacificus) breeds from Prince William Sound, Alaska, east to northern Alberta, and from central California east to the Rocky Mountains. Six races have been described from Alaska: the Aleutian wren (T. t. meligerus) on Attu at the extreme western end; the Kiska wren (T. t. kiskensis) on Kiska and Little Kiska Islands; the Alaska wren (T. t. alascensia) on the Pribilof Islands; the Tanaga wren (T. t. tanagensia) on Tanaga and probably adjacent islands; Stevenson’s winter wren (T. t. stevensoni) on Amak and Ainagat Island; the Unalaska wren (T. t. petrophilus) op Unalaska, Amaknak, and Akutan Islands; the Semidi wren (T. t. semidiensis) on the Semidi Islands; and the Kodiak wren (T. t. helleri) on Kodiak Island.

Spring migration: Some late dates of spring departure are: Florida: Orlando, March 10. Georgia: Athens, April 14. Mississippi: Biloxi, April 16. Louisiana: New Orleans, April 7. North Carolina: Raleigh, April 21. Virginia: Lynchburg, April 20. District of Columbia: Washington, May 1. Maryland: Hagerstown, April 10. Tennessee: Knoxville, May 1. Kentucky: Bowling Green, May 3. Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, April 20. New Jersey: Elizabeth, April 29.

Early dates of spring arrival are: Pennsylvania: Harrisburg, April 5. New Jersey: Elizabeth, March 5. New York: Plattsburg, April 1. Vermont: Woodstock, March 30. Maine: Presque Isle, April 17. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, March 29. Nova Scotia: Wolfville, May 3. Quebec: Quebec, May 6. Ohio: Columbus, March 30. Indiana: Lafayette, March 17. Illinois: Chicago, April 8. Ontario: Toronto, April 6. Michigan: Sault Ste. Marie, April 15. Iowa: Davenport, March 31. Wisconsin: Sheboygan, March 25. Minnesota: Minneapolis, April 5. South Dakota: Faulkton, April 10. Manitoba: Winnipeg, April 19. Montana: Fortine, April 23. British Columbia: Okanagan Landing, March 16.

Fall migration: Late dates of fall departure are: British Columbia: Okanagan Landing, November 9. Montana: Fortine, October 9. South Dakota: Faulkton, October 5. Minnesota: St. Paul, October 18. Wisconsin: Madison, October 30. Iowa: Sioux City, October 5. Michigan: Sault Ste. Marie, October 11. Ontario: Ottawa, November 1. Illinois: Glen Ellyn, October 25. Indiana: Fort Wayne, October 29. Quebec: Montreal, October 27. New Brunswick: St. John, October 12. Maine: Dover, November 5. Vermont: Rutland, October 29. Massachusetts: Boston, November 4. New York: Ithaca, October 20. New Jersey: Morristown, November 3. Pennsylvania: State College, November 23.

Early dates of fall arrival are: Maryland: Hagerstown, September 10. District of Columbia: Washington, September 25. Virginia: Lexington, September 28. North Carolina: Chapel Hill, September 23. Georgia: Atlanta, October 12. Florida: Pensacola, October 20. Missouri: Columbia, October 8. Kentucky: Lexington, October 1. Tennessee-Nashville, October 14. Oklahoma: Oklahoma City, November 5. Louisiana: New Orleans, October 24. Mississippi: Biloxi, October 21.

Casual records: The winter wren has bred once in Wyoming: a nest containing two young ready to fly was found in the Freezeout Hills on July 15, 1897; birds were seen west of Fort Collins and in Estes Park, Cob., in July 1896, but no evidence of breeding was found. This species was seen in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico in September 1902 and at Coony, N. Mex., on December 26, 1889, the only records for the State; in Arizona there are three migration records, two in April and one in October, and one of a specimen taken about 35 miles north of Fort Verde on January 6, 1887. It is an uncommon winter visitant to southern Utah, specimens in Zion Canyon on January 1, 1936, and February 1, 1942.

Egg dates: Alaska: 11 records, May 20 to July 23.

California: 29 records, March 20 to July 19; 15 records, April 20 to May 12, indicating the height of the season.

Labrador: 5 records, June 28 and 29.

New Hampshire: 8 records, May 14 to May 21.

Ontario: 11 records, May 18 to June 18.

Washington: 19 records, April 15 to June 22; 10 records, April 22 to May 9.



Thomas D. Burleigh (1935) discovered and named this wren. He says that it is similar to the eastern winter wren, “but decidedly darker and less rufescent above, the underparts lighter brown, with the vermiculations of the abdomen and flanks heavier; wing longer; bill smaller and more slender.” It breeds, he says, “in the Canadian Zone of the southern Appalachians from western North Carolina (probably Virginia), to northern Georgia, occurring in winter at a lower altitude in this same region.”

“This southern race of the winter wren,” continues Burleigh, “can always be easily recognized in either sex by its distinctly darker upperparts, a characteristic common to other birds limited in their distribution to this general region. Even in worn breeding plumage this character is at once evident.”

The subspecies description is based on eight North Carolina specimens, five from Mount Mitchell, two from the Great Smoky Mountains, and one from Rocky Knob.




The 1910 Check-list treated the Alaska wren, of the Pribilof Islands, and the Aleutian wren, of the western Aleutian Islands, as two distinct species and listed both as specifically distinct from the winter wrens from other parts of North America. A thorough study of all the Old World and New World forms of the genus Nannus, by Dr. Harry C. Oberholser (1919), has demonstrated that all the North American forms of this genus are only subspecifically distinct; furthermore, he claims that these, and all the Old World forms as well, are all subspecies of the Old World species Nannus troglodytes. The framers of our 1931 Check-list evidently do not agree with this latter concept, but they do list all the North American forms as subspecies of Nannus hiemalis.

The Aleutian wren (Troglodytes troglodytes meligerus), the subject of this sketch, was formerly supposed to inhabit all the western Aleutian Islands, from Attu to Kiska; but now Dr. Oberholser (1919) restricts this name to the wrens of Attu Island and possibly the neighboring Agattu Island; and he names three new races for Tanaga, Kiska, and Unalaska Islands. He says that the Aleutian wren “is one of the most deeply colored of the North American forms and is apparently a well-differentiated race.”

We found wrens of this species on all the islands we visited in the Aleutian Chain, from Unalaska on the eastern end to Attu in the west. It was one of the pleasantest surprises of our trip to find these delightful little songsters on these wholly treeless islands, where the only cover was the few stunted willows that grew in the sheltered hollows, or the piles of loose rocks along the shore; they seemed quite out of place in such surroundings, so different from the shady forest haunts of the closely related eastern winter wren. We found them first in an inland rocky ravine along the bed of a cool mountain stream and again in a grassy valley where there were a few scattered rocks on which they could perch and pour out their rich songs, adding a rare charm to this cheerless wilderness. But, most surprising of all, we often heard the glorious, bubbling song of the winter wren coming from the bleak, bare, rocky shores, where loose rocks and boulders were piled in confusion at the bases of the cliffs, washed by cold ocean spray and often enveloped in dense, chilly fogs. Here he sits and sings his thrilling, soulful song, perched on the pinnacle of some damp rock, or the branch of some drifted snag, buffeted by the gales that sweep down from snow-capped mountains, or drenched by frequent rain and snow squalls, all too prevalent in that wretched climate, lie must have a brave and cheerful heart under his tiny coat of thick plumage.

A. H. Clark (1945) writes: “The lively bubbling trill of the winter wrens, the smallest of the Aleutian birds, is a characteristic bird note of the islands. These vivacious and pert little creatures are common, always keeping close to the sea, along the high rocky shores or in the lower portions of the valleys, where their surprisingly loud and clear notes betray their presence. These wrens are variable, and several different local forms are recognized in the Aleutian population.”

Nesting: We did not succeed in finding a nest of any of the wrens of the Aleutian Islands, but Lucien M. Turner (1886) says: “Mating occurs early in May or late in April. Nidification begins immediately. The nest is placed in a crevice in the face of a cliff or amongst the large tussocks of wild rye or other grasses. The nest is large and well built; coarse grasses and roots form the foundation, and as the nest nears completion smaller grasses are selected. The interior of the nest contains few feathers of various species of birds. The walls of the nest are well carried up, and in some instances form a partial roof over the nest, leaving a hole in one side as an entrance. Five to nine eggs are laid; they are pure white in color.”

He says further, as to their habits:

They remain on these islands during the entire year. * * * Their food consists of insects, and occasionally a few seeds will be found in their crops. * * * Their note is a prolonged twitter of several modulations and repeated at short intervals. When surprised, or when they come upon an object that excites their curiosity, a rapid and long rattle is sounded as an alarm, soon to be answered by a second bird. These two keep up the sound until all the Wrens within hearing assemble to investigate the cause. As many as a dozen will surround the object, and approach so close that the outstretched hand might capture them. The least motion, however, disperses them so quickly that one wonders where they have disappeared. They, at these times, hide under the stalks of the weeds or grass. * * * At the approach of winter the bird becomes very familiar, and is frequently found on the window-sills searching for Insects. On one occasion I heard a gentle tapping at my back window; as I had frequently heard the same noise, I carefully drew the curtain partly aside, and saw a Wren endeavoring to obtain a fly that was inside of the pane of glass. The bird did not appear to be disturbed by my presence.

The above account is based on observations made on various islands in the Aleutian Chain, from Unalaska westward, and must not be construed as applying especially to the wrens of Attu Island. The observations were made before the species was subdivided as it is now.




In naming this wren, Dr. Oberholser (1919) described it as similar to meligerus, the preceding form, “but wing, tail, and tarsus shorter; upper parts lighter, less rufescent (more grayish) brown, and posteriorly more uniform (less distinctly barred); lower parts more deeply ochraceous, and posteriorly somewhat less heavily barred with blackish.” The eight specimens from Kiska Island, on which this subspecies is based, exhibit individual variations which suggest intergradation with both the Attu Island bird and the Unalaska bird.

Most of the wrens of this race that we saw on Kiska Island were living on the shore of Kiska Harbor. A high, rocky cliff, on which a pair of Peale’s falcons were evidently nesting, rose above a narrow beach strewn with masses of broken rocks and boulders, with scattered tufs of long grass growing in some places among the rocks. Pacific eiders were nesting among these tufts of grass, pigeon guillemots had their eggs hidden far under the rocks, and on a grassy slope some Aleutian song sparrows were singing songs reminding us of home. Here the wrens were darting in and out among the rocks, climbing over them, or perching on their tops to sing, often bobbing up and down in true winter-wren fashion. Their songs were much like those of the eastern winter wren, but it seemed to me that they were louder and richer; perhaps they sounded more beautiful by contrast with their bleak surroundings, the rocky background, the pounding surf, and the cries of sea birds.




This race of the winter wren group is now supposed to be confined to the Pribilof Islands, on St. George and St. Paul Islands. The type, which was obtained by Dr. Dali on the former island, was an immature bird in its first plumage.

Dr. Oberholser (1919) describes this race as similar to the Kiska bird, “but wing and tail longer; bill decidedly, tarsus and middle toe without claw somewhat, shorter; upper parts darker, mare rufescent; lower parts rather more deeply ochraceous, and posteriorly with narrower, less deeply blackish bars.” It seems to be subspecifically distinct from all the birds of the Aleutian Islands, including Unalaska.

Dr. Nelson (1887) wrote: “One of the most peculiar facts in its history is its abundance on the island of St. George, which is about 180 miles north of the Aleutian Islands, whereas, on St. Paul Island, only 27 miles distant from St. George, and apparently suitable in every way for its presence, there is not a single record of its occurrence; and Elliott states that he searched carefully for it during his residence at that place.” This statement could not be made truthfully today, for specimens have since been taken on St. Paul Island. We failed to find it there, but our stay was very limited; we failed to find it on Walrus Island in the same group, where we made a more thorough investigation of its wonderful bird life.

More recently, Dr. Harold Heath (1920), who spent the greater part of May and the first half of June 1918 on St. George Island, has added much to our knowledge of this wren and its habits. As to its distribution on these islands be says: “Until recent years the wrens of the Pribilof Islands were strictly limited ‘to the island of St. George. In 1915, however, six individuals were observed by Dr. Hanna on St. Paul Island, and of these, three were secured. None, so far as I now recall, have since been noted there, but in the summer of 1918 a considerable number were seen on Otter Island, a small body of land 4 miles to the southward.”

In a. still more recent paper, Preble and McAtee (1923) state that Mr. Hanna took two of his specimens on St. Paul Island on October 29, 1914, and the third on May 16, 1915; he also reported that, during 1915, George Haley saw 11 individuals on Otter Island, that they have since become well established there, and that they bred there in 1916, 1917, and 1918. These authors conclude:

It seems likely, therefore, unless the species meets with a reverse on Otter Island from some cause, that it will In time become regularly established as a breeder on St. Paul, and that, therefore, the likelihood of the species surviving will be strengthened.

During the winter of 1916-1917 St. George was visited by an unusual number of gyrfalcons, which preyed upon the wrens and rosy finches to such an extent that they were almost extirpated. G. Dallas Hanna states that in May 1917, he found not over six pairs of wrens during a trip made entirely around the island. Since then, however, as elsewhere detailed, the species has become at least fairly common again and has even spread to the other main islands, previously unoccupied.

Nesting: It was many years after the discovery of the Alaska wren that its nesting habits were fully described by a competent naturalist. Earlier accounts were based on reports by the natives or on nests and eggs collected by them. The earliest’ account came from Dr. Elliott Coues (1875) ; he quotes from the manuscript notes of Henry W. Elliott, who spent parts of 3 tears on St. George Island, as follows: “Its nest is built in small, deep holes and crevices in the cliffs. I have not myself seen it, but the natives say that it lays from 8 to 10 eggs, in a nest made of soft, dry grass and feathers, roofed over, with an entrance at the side to the nest-chamber, thus being of elaborate construction.”

The attempts of various naturalists, who visited the island during subsequent years, to find the nest of this elusive bird were not successful until 1918, when Dr. Heath (1920) made a special effort to solve the problem and succeeded in finding over 16 nests. He has given us the following full account of the nesting haunts of the Alaskan wren, the difficulties to be encountered in hunting for the nests, and a description of the nests:

Throughout the summer at least, these diminutive creatures confine their activities to the perpendicular cliffs and the adjacent boulder-strewn beach where they prove to be more than usually inconspicuous, for several reasons. In the first place their brownish coats harmonize almost perfectly with the weathered basaltic rock and the encrusting lichens, and this, together with their habit of slipping along the face of the cliff by very short flights, or moving mouse-like through the grass, or entering crevices of the cliff or beneath the beach boulders to appear again several feet distant, renders It most difficult to follow their movements for many minutes together. Also, during the month of May and the first half of June —the length of my sojourn on St. George Island: the weather was anything but ideal. Rain, dense fogs, or at least heavily overcast skies, with piercing winds and a temperature of not over 50 degrees, placed a heavy tax on one’s powers of endurance and eyesight. Furthermore, the almost incessant incoming and outgoing stream of least, crested and paroquet auklets interpersed with kittiwakes, puffins and murres, and the movements of these species on the cliffs, produce a bewildering effect which tends to blot out minor details.

At the outset be it known that the male is almost utterly useless when depended upon to disclose the presence of the nest, until after the young are hatched. In carefree fashion he explores the cracks and crannies of the cliffs for half-frozen hugs and files, or repairs to a commanding position at the upper margin of the cliff, where he delivers himself of his unoiled song; or tiring of this he flies a quarter of a mile or so along the coast to sneak back a few minutes later to the same old stand. In three instances only, have I seen the male fly to the neighborhood of the female or the nest during the building or Incubation period, and his stay in every case was of brief duration.

During this time the female may or may not be in evidence, and if discovered her activities are usually found to be essentially the same as her mate. If so — and an hour’s watching will generally settle the matter —it is economy of effort to postpone the search for the nest until the morrow.

However, if the female is in the midst of house building, no better time can be found to locate her nest for, in spite of intruders, even at a distance of a few feet, she works with feverish activity and with a directness of flight that can scarcely escape the observation of even an untrained eye.

Nevertheless, this period of construction is frequently interrupted by flights to the beach or along the cliff In search of insects, or for a period of song on some lofty point, or she too may dash out of sight far up the coast to return after a period of from 5 to 80 minutes.

Another favorable time for the location of the nest is during the incubation period. Four nests under observation showed that the female remains upon the eggs, whatever the character of the day or the stage of Incubation, for a period ranging from 18 to 21 minutes. She then feeds from 2 to 5 minutes. Here also her flight is relatively direct, in marked contrast to her usual journey along the cliffs, and is unmistakable after a brief experience. The recorded habits of several other birds indicate a fairly definite daily program during the breeding season, but, so far as I know, none are so timed to the minute as the Alaska Wren.

All of the nests discovered in 1918 were in the faces of cliffs anywhere from 25 to 100 feet in height, and were placed at elevations varying from S to 100 feet. The spot chosen may be a crevice between shattered blocks of rock, or in a small blowbole in the ancient lava flow, or, more frequently, underneath banks of moss where rain and frost have excavated cavities of tidy size. In three instances the nesting site had been chosen the year before, the new nest being built upon the remains of the old one. In my experience the nest Is never hidden far beneath the general surface of the cliff. Of 12 nests described In my field notes 4 were plainly visible, while the others were merely concealed by an overhanging fringe of grass or moss or by a few small shattered scales of rock. Four other nests were placed in cracks at a considerable elevation and in overhanging cliffs that effectually prevented a close examination.

The nest of the Alaska Wren is indeed a work of art, with the materials composing it bearing a definite relation to the nature of its surroundings. Generally speaking, it is a globular, more or less bulky affair with the entrance at one side. When situated in a lava bubble or in cavities where the adjacent rock is relatively dry, it usually consists of an external sheath of moss, thick or thin, according to the size of the space to he filled. Where the soil inclines to be soggy the roof alone is built of moss (at least in three instances) to absorb the moisture and prevent its precipitation upon the sitting female. Farther down, at the sides of the nest, it rests. upon a meshwork of grass and roots that not only drains away the water from above, but permits of rapid drying. To determine the correctness of this theory a nest of this type was brought in from the field, and was left overnight under the slow drip from a water tap. The next morning the mossy roof was soaked and the grassy base adrip, bill not a drop of water had made Its way Into the interior.

The lining of the nest forms a heavy feltwork of which delicate roots and fine filamentous lichen form the chief constituents. With these are usually associated the feathers of the least anklet (and other birds to a less degree), fox hairs, and in late years, the hair of the reindeer.

There is a nest in the Thayer collection in Cambridge, which I have examined. It was collected by E. C. Crompton on St. George Island on May 20, 1922, taken from a crevice in the rocks of a cliff on the seashore, about 20 feet up. It is quite bulky, being made mainly of dry grasses and weed stems, mixed with green mosses and lichens and a few feathers; it is lined with small feathers and very fine white hairs. These white hairs were probably from the bleached out winter coat of the blue fox; those examined microscopically by Dr. Heath proved to be from this source.

Eggs: The six eggs that came with the above nest are ovate and have very little gloss. They are pure white; some are nearly, or quite, immaculate, but most of them are sparingly sprinkled, mainly about the larger end, with fine pinpoints of the palest brown.

The earlier reports by natives that this wren lays as many as 10 or 12 eggs should not be taken seriously; probably the natives were careless or could not count accurately. Dr. Heath (1920) says: “In the majority of the nests examined this year the number of eggs laid is 7. Six may be the complement. * * * A young, intelligent native boy told me that he had examined several wren’s nests during the past 10 years, and had never found more than 7 eggs or young.” He says that the eggs “are more or less peppered with reddish dots.” The eggs in his photograph all show these markings plainly (pl. 31). The measurements of 34 eggs average 17.0 by 13.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 19.0 by 13.7, 18.0 by 14.0, 14.0 by 13.0, and 17.1 by 12.2 millimeters.

Young: Dr. Heath (1920) writes: “A nearly as I can judge from one pair of wrens, the period of incubation lasts 11 days, and the young in this same nest were fed for 22 days. The incubation period seems too short and the altricial period too long. When the eggs are hatched the male abandons his usual haunts, and with his mate collects insects from foggy morn to yet more foggy eve. When this brood is dismissed a second one may be reared the same season. In 1918, for example, E. C. Crompton, Government agent on St. George, reported to me the discovery of a nest that was left by the young about the middle of July. During the following week the female deposited a second set of eggs.”

Plumages: Ridgway (1904) says of the young: “Essentially like adults, but brown of upper parts more rufescent, flanks and under tail-coverts less distinctly barred (bars sometimes obsolete), and feathers of under parts more or less distinctly margined with brown or dusky.” Nelson (1887) says that the young “may be distinguished from the adult by a smoky brown shade on the sides of the head, chin, and throat, and a brighter rusty-red on the back, especially on the rump. In the adults the bill is longer and proportionally slenderer, and the faint, light superciliary line is better marked.”

As far as we can tell from the scanty material available, the molts are apparently similar to those of the eastern winter wren.

Food: Preble and McAtee (1923) write:

Of the 11 stomachs of Alaska wrens available 9 were examined some time ago by less discriminating methods than those at present in use, and it is only possible, therefore, to indicate the nature of the food in very general terms. The sustenance was entirely animal and included the following groups: Amphipods, 24.1 percent; two-winged flies (partly Borboridae), 24.1 percent; beetles (including ground and rove beetles), 14.3 percent; bugs (Hemiptera), 18.2 percent; caterpillars, 12.9 percent; and Hymenoptera, 11.4 percent.

A recently examined stomach contained the following items: Six beetles of tbe sexton-beetle family (Lyrosoma opaca), 12 percent; rove beetles (Olophrum fuscurn and 2. Liparocephalus brevipennis), 3 percent; three small parasitic wasps (including Phygadeuon sp. and Plesignathus sp.), 1 percent; remains of dung flies (Scatophaga sp.) and perhaps other flies, 74 percent; one mite of an undescribed genus of the family Gamasidae, trace; and amphipod remains, 10 percent.

Another stomach, lately examined, taken October 29, 1914, contained remains of 24 or more rove beetles (Staphylinidae), 70 percent; 4 beach beetles (Aegialites debilis), 19 percent; 1 other beetle, 1 percent; and a few flies, 10 percent.

Behavior: The behavior of the birds during the breeding season has been described by Dr. Heath above. Mr. Elliott’s notes, quoted by Dr. Coues (1875), say that “the male is very gay during the period of mating and incubation, flying incessantly from plant to plant or rock to rock, singing a rather shrill and very loud song, and making, for a small bird, a great noise.”

Winter: The destruction of these wrens by gyrfalcons in winter has been referred to above. Mr. Elliott told Dr. Nelson (1887) that “during exceptionally severe winters on the island of St. George, large numbers of these birds die of exposure, so that only the hardiest among them survive. But the rapidity with which they multiply brings their numbers up to the former standard in a very few seasons.”




Dr. Oberholser (1919) has given the above name to the wrens of Tanaga, Adak, and Atka Islands in the Aleutian Chain. The subspecies description is based on nine specimens, collected on the above islands, mostly by the members of our expedition in 1911. He says that it is similar to the Kiska bird, “but wing somewhat longer; upper parts more rufescent and rather lighter, especially on the lower back, rump, and upper tail-coverts; posterior lower parts on the average less heavily barred, and with the bars less blackish; the entire under surface averaging lighter and somewhat more ochraceous.” He says that it is nearest to the bird of the Pribilof Islands, “but its bill is much longer and its upper parts lighter.”

On Atka Island we found the birds in a sheltered, grassy hollow with a few rocks scattered through it, and in rocky ravines and gulches, where it was in full song. On Adak Island they were on the rocky shores of the Bay of Waterfalls. They doubtless occur in both types of habitat on all of these islands. Their habits are evidently the same as those of the other island subspecies.




Dr. Oberholser (1919) gives this new name to the wrens found on Unalaska Island and the neighboring islands of Amaknak and Akutan. On the basis of 15 specimens from these localities, he describes the new subspecies as similar to the Pribilof bird, “but wing shorter; bill longer; upper parts lighter, much more rufescent; lower parts decidedly paler, and posteriorly with narrower and lighter bars.”

We noticed nothing different from the habits of these wrens elsewhere in the wrens we saw on these islands, but Dr. Nelson (1887) has this to say about the haunts and habits of this subspecies:

On May 13, 1877, I landed, during a heavy gale, on the Island of Akoutan, just east of Unalaska, and was making my way cautiously along the rock-strewn beach, half expecting a fall of fragments from the beetling cliffs above to join the rocky mass which had already fallen. While occupied in searching cautiously for a firm footing, a faint, wiry, note struck my ear and brought me to a sudden standstill. All about lay huge blocks of riven lava, from which arose the overhanging crags; a little back a more sloping bluff presented its face, the inequalities of which were dotted by scattered grass and other vegetation, now dead and yellow, or in spots were flecked with patches of snow. As my eye scanned this abrupt slope, the author of the notes was seen clinging to a dwarf willow bush at the very brow of the bluff, over which the wind came with great force, beating the bush back and forth as if it would uproot it.

The last of September and first of October, 1881, while the Corwin lay at Unalaska, I had still further opportunities for studying this little-known species In its home. They were very common everywhere on the lower portions of the Island, wherever the rank grass and other plants, combined with the stunted bushes, offered a fitting shelter. Here the birds were seen repeatedly, swinging on the projecting sprays or flitting busily from point to point, and showing a peculiar sprightliness and activity common to it and its kind.



Only two specimens of this wren from the Semidi Islands, on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula, to which it seems to be confined, were available for study when Dr. Oberholser (1919) described it as similar to the Unalaska bird, “but wing, tail, and bill somewhat longer; upper parts less rufescent (more grayish) and somewhat darker; under surface paler, less deeply ochraceous, and posteriorly rather more heavily barred.” He says that it differs from the Pribilof bird “in its decidedly longer bill and somewhat longer tarsus and middle toe; somewhat lighter, less rufescent upper parts; and paler, less ochraceous lower surface.”

Nothing seems to have been recorded about its haunts or habits.



This race seems to be confined to Kodiak Island. Dr. Wilfred H. Osgood (1901) named it in honor of Edmund Heller, who was with him when the type was collected. He described it as “slightly larger and paler colored than” the western winter wren, and remarked that it “is merely another illustration of the tendency of west coast birds which range as far north as Kodiak to become pale in their northern habitat.”

Dr. Oberholser (1919) calls it similar to the Unalaska bird, “but smaller, especially the bill; upper surface much darker, more sooty (less rufescent) ; dark bars of lower back, rump, and upper tail-coverts more conspicuous; lower parts darker, and posteriorly more heavily dark-barred.”

It is apparently one of the rarest of the subspecies, and very little seems to be known about it.



Dr. Harry C. Oberholser (1930) has split off another finely drawn race from the many recognized subspecies of Alaskan wrens, to which he has given the above name. He describes it as similar to the Unalaska wren, “but upper parts, and to a less extent, also the lower surface, more grayish or sooty (less rufescent) in both adult and juvenal plumages; posterior lower parts in adult on the average less heavily spotted with fuscous; bill and middle toe averaging slightly longer.”

He says that it is found on “Amak Island and Amagat Island, Alaska; and probably also other neighboring islands and the southwestern end of the Alaska Peninsula.

As in most of the other Alaska races of this species there is considerable individual variation in this new form; and the differences, while very readily recognizable in a series, are, of course, to some extent overlapped by individuals of the most closely related subspecies, Nannus troglodytes petrophilus. It is interesting, however, to note that the color differences are fully as noticeable in the juvenal plumage as in the adult, as is well shown by the series of 10 young and 5 adults from Amak and Arnagat Islands that have been examined.”




Baird (1864),in his original description of this wren, says: “I find, on comparing series of eastern birds with those from the Pacific slope, that the latter are considerably darker in color above, with little or almost none of the whitish spotting among the dusky bars so characteristic of eastern specimens. The under parts are more rufous, the tarsi appear shorter, and the claws decidedly larger.”

Ridgway (1904) describes it as similar to the eastern bird, “but darker and more richly colored; brown of upper parts darker, more rusty, more uniform, the back, etc., much less distinctly barred, often quite uniform; color of throat, chest, etc., much deeper and brighter, more tawny-cinnamon or light russet; bill straighter and more slender.”

The breeding range of the western winter wren extends along the Pacific slope from Prince William Sound, Alaska, to central California, and in the Rocky Mountain region from western Alberta to northern Colorado.

The haunts and habits of the western winter wren are similar to those of its eastern relative, though the environment is somewhat different. The eastern bird is content to make its summer home in dense forests of spruces and firs that grow to only moderate heights, while its western relative lives in the deep forests of giant conifers that so heavily clothe the northwest coast from sea level to the limit of trees, and in the deep shade of the grand redwood forests of California.

S. F. Rathbun tells me that it is one of the few birds to be found in the deep forests of western Washington, even in the densest places. He finds it in the forests bordering the beaches, at lake level inland and up to 5,000 feet in the Olympic Mountains. Referring to Mount Rainier, in Washington, Taylor and Shaw (1927) write: “The western winter wren seems as much a part of the forest floor as the mosses, huckleberry vines, huge logs, and upturned roots of his surroundings. * * * When the traveler emerges from the dark woods onto the open meadows or well-lighted brushy burns the wrens become much less numerous, for they are fond of shadows. They are often found at a considerable distance from water on some forest-covered hillside. Once, indeed, they were noted in clumps of alpine firs on an open and well-lighted hillside with a southern exposure.”

Grinnell and Storer (1924) say that, in the Yosemite region, this, the smallest and most seclusive of the wrens, “lives at the middle altitudes, amid freshest-bared tangles and rootlets and accumulations of drift materials along shaded stream courses.” W. A. Kent writes to me that, at the head waters of the Kern River in the Sierra Nevadas he found that the western winter wren had nested at an elevation of 11,000 feet. Dawson (1923) says: “The Western Winter Wren is one of the commonest birds in the humid coast belt of western California as far south as middle Monterey County. Not only is it the most characteristic inhabitant of rugged stream beds and romantic dells, but it may be found throughout the somber depths of the fir and redwood forests, from sea-level nearly to the tops of the northern mountains.”

Courtship: I do not know whether anyone has ever seen the courtship display of the eastern winter wren, but I have never seen it reported. Therefore, the following account of the display of the western winter wren, by Theed Pearse (1933) is of special interest:

The bird was in a bush above a tangle in which, possibly, there was a female, on a branch just clear of the tangle. First, the bird fluttered or quivered its wings, keeping them close to the body slightly drooped. Its general attitude was rather squatting, the converse of the ordinary alert upstanding posture. When quivering it looked down towards the ground (the tangle where there may have been a female) and worked its tail alternately from side to side. At times it would utter a note, a much modified and softened regular alarm note.

The climax came when the bird dropped its wings and fanned with them, bringing them forward and then backwards. The feathers carried concavely from the front, with the feathers on the back also raised between the wings. The bird “fanned” about ten times; the action was quick but easily followed. Alter this the bird dropped into the bush and moved away. Shortly afterwards a Winter Wren appeared in the same bush, up from below and perched there for a time bowing or bobbing.

It was when the bird had the wings held open ‘fanning” that it brought Into prominence some white markings on the feathers that were raised on the rump. The glimpse one had, made It difficult to decide whether the white was on the secondary tertial or rump feathers, but there was sufficient to draw attention, though so inconspicuous, that I had to make sure by examining the skins In Mr. Laing’s collection. We found that when the feathers on the rump were parted there were some that showed white markings or spots.

Nesting: The nests of the western winter wren are apparently very similar, in construction and in the kinds of material used, to those of the eastern bird, but the locations chosen seem to be somewhat more varied. Dawson and Bowles (1909) say:

For nesting sites the Wrens avail themselves of cubbyholes and crannies in upturned roots or fallen logs, and fire-holes in half-burned stumps. A favorite situation is one of the crevices which occur in a large fir tree when it falls and splits open. Or the nest is sometimes found under the bark of a decaying log, or in a crevice of earth in an unused mine-shaft. If the site selected has a wide entrance, this is walled up by the nesting material and only a smooth round aperture an inch and a quarter in diameter is left to admit to the nest proper. In default of such shelter, birds have been known to construct their nests at the center of some baby fir, or in the drooping branches of a fir tree at a height of a foot or more from the ground.

Mr. Rathbun mentions in his notes a nest that was still farther from the ground: “The nest was attached very near the extremity of one of the lower limbs of a small hemlock tree at a height of 12 feet. It was almost round in shape and resembled a bunch of moss hanging from the limb, but it was too perfect in shape to deceive me.”

Thomas D. Burleigh (1980) records four nests, found in northwestern Washington, in four different situations; one was “2 feet from the ground in the upturned roots of a large fir at the side of a stream in a wooded ravine.” Another was “2 feet from the ground in a crevice at the end of an old rotten log on a hillside in a ravine”; a third “was 3½ feet from the ground in a hole in an old rotten stump in a stretch of thick woods.” The fourth nest seems most unusual “for it was 5 feet from the ground well concealed in a mass of dead leaves lodged in a clump of shoots growing from the trunk of a large alder in a short stretch of open woods.”

There is a nest in the Thayer collection in Cambridge that was apparently similarly located; it was taken by F. J. Smith, of Eureka, Calif., “in woods near town, fastened to sprouts against the side of an alder tree, partly concealed by tall sword ferns.”

The western winter wren is one of the species that accepted J. H. Bowles’s invitation to nest in artificially prepared nesting sites; he had a pair adopt a “very old and badly broken down Creeper ‘decoy’ “; he tried tin cans and other devices unsuccessfully, and then says (1922): “Finally I removed a section of bark from a small dead fir stub, dug out a space about six inches in diameter, then replaced the bark and made an entrance hole about an inch and a half in diameter close to the top of the cavity.” A pair of wrens took possession, a few weeks later built a beautiful nest, and laid a set of five eggs in it.

Like some other wrens, notably the long-billed marsh wren, the western winter wren builds extra nests, false or decoy nests, perhaps through super-abundant energy on the part of the male, or with the idea of appropriating all available nesting sites for possible future use. Mr. Bowles (1899) says: “The number of ‘decoys’ built by one pair of these birds varies from one to at least four, and on one occasion I found eight of these false nests that were strung along the edge of a stream bordered by dense growth of all sizes. These were all in a space about 150 yards long and almost in a straight line.” He does not claim that all of these nests were made by one pair of birds, but only one appeared during his search. “The ‘decoys’ are never so well constructed as the regular nests, but a few weeks ago I was surprised to find that a pair had made over and lined one of last season and laid one egg.”

Eggs: The eggs are indistinguishable from those of the eastern winter wren. The measurements of 40 eggs average 16.4 by 12.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 18.1 by 12.7, 17.2 by 13.0, and 14.0 by 12.0 millimeters.

Young: Mrs. Wheelock (1904) says that the young “are fed by regurgitation for several days after hatching, the menu being chiefly small grubs which the busy little parents pick out of the bark of the coniferous trees. They are fed on insects and worms also. After the sixth day the food is mostly given in the fresh condition. The wren nestlings leave the nest between the seventeenth and twenty-first days.

Grinnell and Storer (1924) watched a nest containing young that was located on the edge of a small stream, only 13 inches above the water. They write:

The parent was busily engaged in feeding large green worms, millers, crane-flies, and other insects to the young. A beam of light reflected into the nest from a mirror did not seem to frighten the wrens and so it was possible to observe closely the process of feeding. The old bird made visits at intervals of 4, 9, 2, 2, 7, 8, and 3 minutes, respectively; twice, at the second and last of these timed visits, the bird carried away excrement. The young void the excrement (which is enclosed in a gelatinous sac) immediately after being fed; it is dropped by them on the rim of the nest where it lies as a conspicuous spherical white object, the size of a large bean. The old bird seizes this in her bill and in one instance carried it away fully 50 feet before depositing it in a wild currant bush. One sac fell into the small stream and as it floated slowly along the surface the bird snatched nervously at it again and again. Finally it was recovered, whereupon the bird flew off and disposed of it in the usual manner, in a place where it would give no clue to the location of the nest.

Food: No comprehensive, detailed study of the food of the western winter wren seems to have been made, but it probably does not differ much from that of other wrens in its habitat. It seems to subsist almost wholly, if not entirely, on insects and their larvae. The items mentioned in the food of the young, above, probably constitute the bulk of its food.

Behavior: Anyone familiar with our eastern winter wren would recognize this little westerner by its behavior. It is the same, nervous, active little mouse, dodging about near the ground, in and out of tangles and the roots of trees, and about prostrate logs, bowing and bobbing, with its short tail cocked up over its back. Grinnell and Storer (1924) say:

The bird seems to skip along and uses both the short wings and long legs in all its ordinary movements. It seems equally at ease on a nearly vertical twig and on a horizontal root or branchlet.

One evening just at sunset, in October, while our party was camped near Sweetwater Creek, a winter wren was watched as it came down to bathe. The bird fluttered down, half flying, half hopping, to a small pool completely screened from above. It would stay a few seconds, splashing in the water, and then move to a porch a few feet above the pool, soon to return for another brief dip. Five or six such short visits were made and then the bird returned to the perch where it stayed for a while, fluffing out all its feathers, and using its bill to press out the water. Two or three minutes sufficed to complete its toilet and then the wren made off down the creek to a brush pile.

Voice: What has been written about the voice of the eastern winter wren would apply equally well to its western relative. The song is hardly inferior to it in any way, and its call notes are similar. Mr. Rathbun tells me that this wren has a long period of song; he has heard it as early as February 28, but it sings most incessantly from the middle of March to the end of June; he hears it also in July and early in August, but then the song, “although well rendered, seems to lack the abandon of that heard (luring the earlier period” and is not so frequently given. He once timed the duration of the song and found that its length varied from 8 to 17 seconds, at times up to 23 seconds; the intervals between the songs were 4 to 12 seconds; sometimes the songs were repeated without intermissions. He remarks that some of the notes have “the quality of the tones given by lightly striking the edge of a thin glass goblet.”

Taylor and Shaw (1927) say: “If the observer remains quiet, and perhaps makes a squeaking sound with the lips on the back of his hand, he can easily attract the midgets to within 3 or 4 feet. Under such conditions a call note is uttered, evidently expressive of curiosity or caution tsSs8″ t8888! The usual call note is a check! chek-chek! chek-chek!” Winter: Cold weather, snow, and ice combine to drive the wrens down from the higher elevations in the mountains to the lower and milder valleys, where they seek such shelter as they can find. Even here they sometimes perish during severe winters. Theed Pearse tells me that, on Vancouver Island, they suffered a great reduction in numbers as a result of two successive cold and snowy winters, 1936-37 and 1937-38, but had recovered quite well by the winter of 1939-40.

C. E. Ehinger (1925) tells an interesting story of a winter wrens’ lodginghouse in western Washington. This was a small birdbox, 6 inches. attached their cabin which was surrounded with square, to woods. During severe winter weather, in December and January, an increasing number of wrens began using this box as a night roosting place. He describes their actions as follows:

At the setting of the sun the wrens began to gather, and for half an hour they played about the bird box in the most Interesting manner. Singly and in groups they would dash up to the cabin wall, cling there a moment, then with a flying leap change their position to one a little nearer to the bird box. This was continued until they could spring upon the roof of the box, from which they dropped to the little platform and entered. After a moment they would usually fly out again and circle around, only to repeat the manoeuvre. Several times, 10 to 15 wrens were counted clinging to the cabin wall at the same time, like so many great flies, when they would repeat the aforesaid manoeuvre and finally disappear silently through the tiny opening into their lodging house like little feathered mice. * * *

January 21, time 4:45 to 5:20 p. m., proved the prize record for wren lodgers. After a short period of the usual “play-antics” the birds entered rapidly until 30 were counted. Others continued to come, but the situation inside apparently seemed hopeless, and they flew around to the front of the cabin where a ledge under the eaves seemed to furnish a protected roosting place. We saw those later through a little ventilating window under the eaves and also heard them moving about. Just before complete darkness, one belated wren came to the bird box, tried to enter and failed, finding a full house; but not to be denied a warm sleeping place he stood a few moments on the little porch and made a vigorous but unsuccessful attempt to gain entrance. He heard the wrens inside chattering and moving about, perhaps trying to make room for the late comer. He finally made a third desperate attempt and, climbing over seemingly insurmountable obstacles, he gained entrance, and in a few moments all was still with 31 Winter Wrens snugly ensconced in this 6X6X6 inch apartment.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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