Carolina wren

Sighting a Carolina wren, such as this one, is a rare occurrence in late November in northeastern Indiana.

As I sat down to breakfast one morning recently and looked out the window at the bird feeder, there was a little brown bird on the feeder, a wren.

This is November, the beginning of winter. The day felt like winter when I went outside after finishing my breakfast. There wasn’t any snow, but the sky was gray and it was windy and cold.

Wrens are birds of summer, I thought. Yet here it was on the feeder with birds of summer and winter, several house sparrows, a black-capped chickadee and a white-breasted nuthatch. On suet feeders hanging under the eaves was a downy woodpecker and another white-breasted nuthatch.

Surprising as a house wren, the common summer wren of northern Indiana would have been, this was even more surprising. It was a Carolina wren, an uncommon summer wren this far north, and certainly not a bird we’d see in winter.

A Carolina wren is easy to tell from a house wren. It’s rusty brown on the head and back, not brown like a house wren, and it has a conspicuous white line over each eye. A few days later I saw the Carolina wren at my feeder again, assuming logically that it was the same bird, that there was only one Carolina wren in the area at this time of year.

Northern Indiana is within the range of the Carolina wren, the summer range. Its range extends from Florida north into southern New York, west across southern Iowa, southwest across southeastern Nebraska and south through eastern Oklahoma and Texas and Mexico. I’d seen Carolina wrens in northern Indiana before, but never in November. I’d always thought they had left Indiana and migrated south soon after the days started getting shorter.

But Carolina wrens, I read after seeing that wren, are non-migratory. They are weather driven. They fly south when the weather becomes wintry and that hadn’t happened when I saw the Carolina wren this month. It’s been cold. There’s been ice on lakes and ponds and puddles some mornings. But the ice has melted later in the day and there is no snow.

The Carolina wren is bigger than a house wren, as long as most sparrows. Its bill is much bigger than a house wren’s, long and slender though not as long as the bills of some shorebirds. A Carolina wren’s bill is slender, curves down and has a sharp point. It looks ideal for probing vegetation, searching for insects and small spiders. Carolina wrens are especially popular with cotton growers because they feed extensively on the grubs of cotton boll weevils.

Like house wrens, Carolina wrens nest primarily in cavities, holes in trees and bird houses, though never in one of the bird houses I’ve put out.

They also nest in nooks and crannies around buildings, and, like house wrens, are primarily cavity nesters. They nest in holes in trees, in boxes put out for house wrens and in nooks and crannies around buildings, but not in the wren houses I’ve put out nor around our house, garage or barn. They have two broods per year and usually lay four or five eggs per clutch, though sometimes more.

Carolina wrens, like house wrens, sing from dawn to dusk when the weather is fair. A common song of Caroline wrens, and a distinctive one, sounds like the bird is saying teakettle-teakettle-teakettle. But Carolina wrens are birds of many songs, including a number that sound like the songs of other birds. This is the trait of a mockingbird and the Carolina wren has been called the mocking-wren.

I haven’t seen the Carolina wren at my feeder now for several days. The unseasonably warm weather we were enjoying when I saw that wren is also gone. Now is the time for us to see dark-eyed juncos and snow buntings, not Carolina wrens.

Neil Case may be reached at

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