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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Once nearly absent in the state, the house wren now most abundant in NKY

The House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) has the distinction of being one of the very few songbirds that were rare or absent during the early settlement of Kentucky, but has become established during relatively recent times.

Author Brainard Palmer-Ball Jr. wrote in The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas that “Audubon did not observe the species during the early 1800s, and even as late as the early 1900s it was not known to have definitely nested in the state.”

House Wren (Photo by Karen E. Brown, Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

It’s believed that the House Wren first began nesting here in extreme northern Kentucky, and by the 1950s the species was reported to be present throughout much of central Kentucky.

Today, this small wren is found in the northern third of the state, roughly from Lewis County in the east, south to Madison County and west to Ballard County.

The House Wren is a member of family, Troglodytidae, which has 88 species, and 32 subspecies. First described in the scientific literature in 1809 by French ornithologist Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot, adults are about 4.3 to 5.1 inches tall, with a 5.9-inch wingspan and weigh about 0.35 to 0.42 ounces.

Coloration is a subdued brown overall with darker barring on the wings and tail. Slight differences in coloration vary in the subspecies across the U.S.

This small, compact bird has a flat head, fairly long, curved beak, and is short-winged, often keeping its longish tail either cocked or slightly drooped.

Their songs and calls are quite varied. Both males and females sing.

Their songs are a gurgling, bubbling, exuberant twittering, first rising, then falling.

Their calls include a variety of harsh sounds, including chits and rattles, in a scolding tone, especially in response to the presence of potential predators.

House wren range (Graphic from Audubon Society)


The House Wren’s preferred habitat is semi-open and open lands, including rural farmlands, small towns, parks and residential yards along the rural/suburban interface.

Range and distribution

The geographic range of House Wren in North America extends west to east through southern Canada, south along the Atlantic Coast to Florida, west to the Pacific Coast states, and north to southern British Columbia, in Canada.

The House Wren breeds in the northern two-thirds of the Lower 48 states, wintering in about 14 states in the southern one-third of the Lower 48 states, and in Mexico.

Migration occurs mostly at night, with most birds heading south in September or early October.

Food habits

The House Wren forages in dense vegetation at various levels, sometimes high in trees but usually low, searching for insects on foliage, twigs, branches, the bark of tree trunks, and on the ground.

Feeding on a wide variety of insects, including beetles, bugs, grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, moths, and flies, the House Wren also eats spiders, and some millipedes and snails.

Courtship and nesting

Males migrate north from wintering grounds slightly earlier than females.

Most nesting birds return to Kentucky in late March into April, and egg laying can commence as early as early April, with the completion of the clutch by mid-May. Many pairs attempt and often complete, a second nesting.

House wren nestlings (Photo by Bert Cash, Flickr)

House Wrens are very vocal during courtship. Males may sing nine to eleven times per minute. Females sing mainly to answer their mates shortly after pairing up. Her songs may include high-pitched squeals unlike any sounds that males make.

The male shows the female potential nest sites and she choses the one where they will nest, finishing the nest.

Males defends territory by singing and are often very aggressive for such a small bird. He may puncture the eggs of other birds nesting nearby, including other House Wrens.

Their preferred nest sites are any kind of cavity, including natural hollows in trees, stumps and fence posts, old woodpecker holes, crevices in buildings, and nest boxes.

Nests have a foundation of twigs, topped with softer cup of plant fibers, grass, weeds, animal hair, and feathers.

The female lays five eggs on average, sometimes more. The eggs are white, heavily dotted with reddish brown.

Incubation is mostly or entirely by the female, and lasts about twelve to fifteen days. Both parents feed the nestlings, and the young leave the nest about twelve to eighteen days after hatching.

Conservation status

(Photo by Nick Sherman, Audubon Society)

House Wren numbers and distribution across the country declined after the introduction of the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), a non-native species that thrives in close proximity to humans, and is also a cavity nester.

A native of Europe, the House Sparrow was first introduced in the U.S. in the spring of 1851, when eight nesting pairs were released in Brooklyn, New York. Other introductions across the country followed.

The House Wren is a beautiful little bird familiar to many backyard birdwatchers because of its tendency to nest in close proximity to humans.

This active, inquisitive wren often bounces around with its short tail held up in the air, pausing to sing a bubbling, twittering song. Its range expansion from the north into Kentucky in the early 20th century made a wonderful addition to Kentucky’s diverse bird life.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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