The Flying Shingle
Just for the Birds
Who’s that at the Feeder?
by Sharon McInnes
Monday, January 14, 2013
Click for larger photo
Bewick’s wren ~ photo by Dave Menke, courtesy of USFWS

Just returned from the village, I was closing the gate when an unfamiliar bird at a feeder caught my attention. I set my grocery bags on the driveway, leaving the gate ajar. (Daring behaviour – I’d passed 14 turkeys and a deer just down the road!) The bird skittered around the wooden feeder in the garden then went inside to grab a sunflower seed. I stood four feet away, watching.
A wren? The shape was right, and it had that slightly down-curved bill. I’d seen a winter wren in the garden last year but it didn’t have the striking white eye-lines of this bird.
Moments later it hopped up onto the roof of the feeder and stayed there, head cocked, looking at me – or so it seemed! For a moment I was torn between wanting to continue communing with my avian visitor and wanting to snap a photo (I was thinking of this column) but I opted to stay put. (It was too risky anyway; in closing the gate and walking down the driveway to the house, it would surely disappear.) I decided to use my eyes as my camera, remember rather than capture. Hopefully.
After a few moments the bird returned to the feeder, selected another seed, then flew down into the messy winter garden to forage for a while, moving in short quick hops among fallen leaves. I closed the gate and hurried to the house for my camera, but by the time I returned, the bird had flown the coop – of course.
Several mornings later though, just as I pulled open the bedroom curtains, I saw it again, sitting on the rail of the front porch, its upright tail twitching merrily as if it had a mind of its own. I waved good morning.
By then I had confirmed its identity: a Bewick’s wren (Thryomanes bewickii). This species was discovered by Audobon in 1821 and named after his friend, Thomas Bewick, a British engraver.
With its bold white eyebrows and long white-spotted tail, the wren is lovely to look at. It’s also a gardener’s good friend: it eats the eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults of insects, bugs, beetles, bees, wasps, caterpillars, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, crickets, flies, and spiders! Hanging upside down (like a nuthatch) this acrobatic wren gleans food from trunks, branches, and leaves, or forages in undergrowth, or nabs insects in flight. As I saw during my first encounter, it will also eat seeds, especially in winter.
The Bewick’s wren also provides lovely music. The male has between nine and 22 songs, which it learns during the first two months of life. But unlike many songbirds, it does not learn its repertoire from the father but from neighbouring territorial males. Its songs are, therefore, slightly different from its father’s. (I wonder if that’s called ‘individuation’ in birds too?)
Some of the Bewick’s wren’s songs are reminiscent of the song of the Song sparrow. I’m looking forward to hearing them ‘in person’ in the spring. For now, I’ll listen at: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bewicks_Wren/sounds.
In Canada the Bewick’s wren breeds and lives in southeast Vancouver, the Fraser River lowlands, central Vancouver Island and on the islands of the Salish Sea – including Gabriola!
It’s resident much of the year along the US west coast, the southern states, and in Mexico. Once common in the eastern states, populations there plummeted or disappeared in the early 20th century, probably because of the proliferation of the House wren which is known to remove the eggs of the wren, or kill its nestlings, and set up house itself.
Some scientists believe that the increased use of nest boxes may have encouraged the spread of the House wren and inadvertently led to the decline of the Bewick’s wren. Today breeding populations of the Bewick’s wren are listed as Rare, Endangered, Threatened, or a Species of Concern in 13 states and are being monitored in several others. 
I’m looking forward to another visit. Since the number of Bewick’s wrens counted during this year’s Christmas Bird Count on Gabriola was four times as many as last year (16/4), I’m hopeful!

Sharon is the author of “Up Close & Personal: Confessions of a Backyard Birder”, The Gabriola Bird Blog (http://gabriolabirdblog.blogspot.com), and The Island Book Shoppe blog (http://islandbookshoppe.blogspot.ca).

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