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Feathered Friends – Visit offers migratory surprise

A marsh wren clings to a cattail stem as it forages for insect prey in its wetland habitat. (Photo by Skeeze/

By Bryan Stevens

On the eve of the recent fall equinox, I enjoyed some great lawn chair birding that rewarded me with nice looks at a diverse slate of birds passing through my yard.

The evening started with a young male rose-breasted grosbeak perched on a low branch in a cherry tree. He had his eye on a nearby feeder stocked with sunflower seeds being enjoyed by less cautious Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice. Warblers included a first for this fall when I spotted a male prairie warbler and later a magnolia warbler, as well. I also heard the carrying vocalizations from a Northern flicker and a pileated woodpecker.

The biggest surprise, however, occurred at the edge of the fish pond when I heard an odd, rattling noise. I investigated, detected movement, and focused the binoculars in order to get a good look at a migrating marsh wren that evidently found the cattails and pond vegetation a comfortable habitat. This particular wren proved an expert at ducking and weaving behind every cattail stalk and weed stem, but I patiently stalked the bird with my binoculars as it traveled through the vegetation as I treasured excellent looks at this shy little wren.

The marsh wren, formerly known as the long-billed wren, is similar in appearance to the sedge wren, which happened to also be known as the short-billed marsh wren. Both these wrens favor wetland vegetation and are rarely found far from water. They forage for various insects among reeds, cattails and other plants in their marsh habitats.

I don’t usually expect migrating marsh wrens to pass through until early October, so I was somewhat surprised when this particular individual appeared on Sept. 21. I’ve viewed both the marsh wren and sedge wren in South Carolina, but spotting these birds in Tennessee is a tougher proposition. I saw my first marsh wren in Tennessee many years ago near one of the ponds behind the Erwin McDonald’s.

While they demonstrate pluck and sing songs that usually sound bubbly and cheerful, wrens don’t win any “good neighbor” awards from other birds. House wrens are infamous for piercing eggs and ejecting young from nest boxes or nesting cavities that happen to share space in what the wrens consider their territory. Likewise, the marsh wren is a difficult neighbor. The ire of nesting marsh wrens is usually focused on other marsh wrens, but these birds have been documented piercing the eggs of other birds nesting in their wetland habitat. Before cultivating any antipathy for the marsh wren because of this behavior, remember that it’s a small bird that must overcome a slew of perils, including raccoons and snakes, as well as rats and other birds, in order to achieve nesting success.

Male marsh wrens build the nest, which is fashioned in the shape of a dome, but the female makes the nest comfortable by adding a soft lining made with blades of grass, feathers, cattail down and other vegetation that’s convenient to gather. She will then proceed to lay a clutch of as many as ten eggs.

The marsh wren isn’t likely to visit the typical yard. I’ve allowed the cattail stands on my property to expand each year. Fitting in with my goal, the cattails are magnets for attracting migrating wetland birds, including common grackles, swamp sparrows, red-winged blackbirds and marsh wrens. My hope is that the cattails may eventually attract rails or perhaps even a bittern.

Other wrens in the United States include rock wren, cactus wren and Bewick’s wren. Some of the world’s other wrens include bird with descriptive names such as the white-headed wren, bicolored wren, giant wren, tooth-billed wren, whiskered wren, ochraceous wren, bar-winged wood wren, timberline wren, long-billed wren, chestnut-breasted wren, musician wren, song wren and happy wren.

I know that getting to glimpse into the world of a marsh wren among the cattail stalks made me happier. I may never see a happy wren, a secretive, skulking bird that lives along the Pacific slope of western Mexico, but I’ll take some pleasure every time I hear the enthusiastic song of a Carolina wren from my brush pile or get a brief look at a migrating marsh wren.