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Marsh Wren
marsh wren
Marsh wren, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center, Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County, in February 2017.
marsh wren

To many, the marsh wren, Cistothorus palustris, is the William Hung of the songbird world. Hung, if you recall, earned 15 minutes of fame on American Idol nearly a decade ago for his strikingly bad singing audition. The marsh wren is similarly unmelodious, and like other wrens, extremely loud, especially in proportion to its tiny size.

None other than James Audubon compared the songs of the marsh wren to the "gratings of a rusty hinge," according to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Another naturalist called the marsh wren "deficient and contemptible in singing." Not only is the singing loud, it's nearly constant, going on day and night.

But what the marsh wren lacks in quality, it makes up for in quatity and complexity. A marsh wren male will learn as many as 50,200 song types, which it will use to earn the fleeting affections of lady marsh wren and to defend his territory against other males. More on that later.

Marsh wrens are mostly migratory birds, found nearly everywhere in the continental United States at one time or another. They are mostly winter visitors to Florida and parts of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts as well as much of the Southwest, into Mexico. They spend summers in portions of the MidAtlantic states, westward into the Great Plains and into Canada. They are year-round residents in parts of the Pacific Northwest. Two subspecies, Worthing's (C. p. Greiseus) in the northeastern corner of the state, and Marian's (C. p. Marianae) do breed in Florida.

It's a bird that's mostly heard rather than seen, in part because it spends most of the time in dense, reedy wetlands. As noted, they small birds and perfectly colored to fit into the background. They forage for insects, spiders and other bugs on or just above the surface of the water. Occasionally, they'll dart out to take an insect on the fly.


marsh wren

Marsh wrens have a thin bill, dark skull cap, a light brown face and a prominent white eyeline that extends to the back of the head. The underside is light brown to white, wings and back are a mix of browns, whites and blacks. Males and females are similarly plumed, both between four and six inches in length.

Males build dummy nests, sometimes as many as 20, according to Audubon, most of which are never used to raise young. When a female approaches a male's territory, he will fly over her and sing; if she enters his territory, he'll show her some of his nests. If she likes the dude, the female will choose one of his nests and line it with finer materials. Or she might decide to build a nest of her own. Nests are dome-shaped weaves of grass, cattails and other plants, with an opening on the side and attached to reeds a few feet above the water.

Clutches are generally four or five eggs that require about two weeks of incubation, all done by mom. Both parents feed their offspring, but females probably do more of it. The young leave the nest in about two weeks. Marsh wrens aren't exactly monogamous, but the rate of males mating with more than one female varies greatly by geography — as low as 5 percent to more than 50 percent. They are also known to pierce and sometimes consume the eggs of other birds species in their territory. They also attack nests of their own kind and even their own eggs if the female isn't present on the nest.

Marsh wrens are members of Troglodytidae, the family of wrens. Another name for this bird: thin-billed wren.

Photographs by David Sedore

Links for Marsh Wren Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology National Audubon Society National Geographic Society
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.