In Massachusetts, it’s not surprising to observe a plethora of black-capped chickadees flitting about in the tangled underbrush. Chickadees are, after all, the official state bird and have been since 1941.
What you might not expect is the official bird of a southern state to show up in your back yard all the way up here in New England. And yet, they are here: Carolina wrens.
These tiny birds, the official state bird of South Carolina, were once confined to the southeast, according to Mass Audubon, but they have shown themselves to be the little bird that could — and did — adapt.
“Today, the emphatic song of the Carolina wren is frequently heard in both wilderness thickets and suburban developments throughout Massachusetts,” Mass Audubon notes in its online Breeding Birds Atlas.
The wildlife organization describes Carolina wrens as “very widespread and strongly increasing” in New England as a result of milder winters.
“Even high mortality during cold, snowy winters does not seem to have lasting negative impacts on the more northern segments of the population,” the organization notes.
A brief history of Carolina wrens in Massachusetts
Carolina wrens surprised folks here in Massachusetts when they were very first observed in the state 146 years ago.
“The Great Carolina Wrens, so far as I know, have not previously been reported as visitors to Massachusetts, but there are, at present, two apparently passing the summer in a small wooded swamp near Boston,” Massachusetts ornithologist Henry Davis Minot wrote in 1877. “It is further believed that they are now building or have recently built their nest.”
Mass Audubon notes this was the first “definite” reference to Carolina wrens in Massachusetts, though the rumor of the nest Minot mentioned was never proven. The birds weren’t around in any great numbers, either, as they were officially recorded just five other times over the next 25 years. It wasn’t until 1901, Mass Audubon notes, that a nest was observed on Naushon Island — an observation that was cited by another Massachusetts ornithologist, Edward Forbush.
From then onward, Carolina wrens were observed in increasing numbers in Massachusetts.
So what do Carolina wrens look like?
Carolina wrens are small — only about 5.5 inches in height. Their plumage is cinnamon brown on top and tawny underneath, marked by long white eyebrow stripes (called supercilium), and white throats. Their wings and tails have chocolate brown barring.
These little birds have sharp, dark beaks that curve slightly downward which, ornithologists at Mass Audubon point out, makes it easy for them to pluck up insects to eat.
Not to be mistaken for sparrows, Carolina wrens — in fact, all wrens — hold their tails cocked upright — something that sparrows do not do.
Only the male Carolina wren does any loud singing, though the female will respond with a chittering sound. Once they find a mate, these wrens frequently stay together for life.
Carolina wrens can be found in tangled brush, forest undergrowth, shrubbery and gardens. They build their nests — made from twigs, leaves and grasses, and lined with materials such as moss, feathers and animal hair — in hollow places, such as cavities in tree trunks, stumps and among the roots of fallen trees. Interestingly, according to audubon.org, Carolina wrens frequently add a piece of snakeskin to their nests.
In people’s yards, they may make their nests, often domed, in hanging plants or flower pots, according to allaboutbirds.org
Pairs of Carolina wrens tend to remain in the same territory year round.
Described as “a curious combination of shy and bold,” these wrens typically lay 5 to 6 eggs. According to Audubon.org, the eggs are white with brown specks that are usually concentrated at the larger end of the eggs. While eggs are incubated by the female alone for 12 to 16 days, both parents get involved in feeding the young once they hatch. Each pair tends to produce two sets of young each year, though in warmer climates they may produce three.
Young Carolina wrens fledge the nest about two weeks after emerging from their eggs.
At times Carolina wrens may be seen at backyard feeders, attracted mostly by suet and peanuts, according to Audubon.org, but their diet mainly consists of insects. Favorite meals include caterpillars, beetles, and crickets.