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A Column About Wrens

by Rudy M. Baum
June 16, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 24

During my tenure as C&EN editor-in-chief, I wrote more than 350 editorials. This one ­appeared in the June 29, 2009, issue of C&EN.

Last summer, my wife, Jan, and I attended a beer-tasting festival at Belle Grove Plantation, in Middletown, Va., a small town in the Shenandoah Valley. As is often the case at such events, a number of crafts vendors had set up stalls at the festival.

Credit: Rudy Baum/C&EN
Photo of a Wren
Credit: Rudy Baum/C&EN

One vendor was selling birdhouses made from large gourds. She had hollowed out each gourd through a small, round opening and decorated around the hole with a pattern etched into the gourd and subtle coloring. We thought they were pretty and bought one, although I was sure no self-respecting bird would ever use it as a birdhouse.

Through the fall and winter, the gourd hung from a rafter in our screened-in deck. When spring rolled around and I took down the suet bird feeder that hung just outside the screen of the deck, I decided to hang the birdhouse, just for the heck of it.

Nothing happened for a couple of weeks. Then one day I saw a house wren poke its head inside the gourd and disappear inside it. Soon, two birds were arriving at the gourd with twigs and bits of straw. House wrens are small birds, about 3 to 4 inches in length, and many of the twigs were half again as long as the birds themselves. It was humorous to watch them solve the logistical problems associated with maneuvering the material through the hole and into the hollow of the gourd.

Jan and I spend a lot of time on the deck in the springtime when the weather in the Washington, D.C., area is balmy and the heat and humidity of summer have yet to make their presence felt. In the evenings after work, I sit in a comfortable wicker chair and read the New York Times. On Sundays, we spend a fair portion of the day on the deck reading the papers. I especially like to sit on the deck as a late-afternoon or early-evening thunderstorm approaches and breaks all around me.

The wrens have brightened our time on the deck this spring immeasurably. They are perky, industrious little birds, with a startlingly robust, varied, and beautiful song. The gourd birdhouse hangs only about 10 feet from where I sit. For some reason, the flimsy screen that is between us and the wrens seems to give the birds a sense of security. They pay almost no attention to us.

The wrens are now on their second brood of chicks, which is apparently not uncommon when conditions are favorable. The male and female wrens form a virtual bucket brigade bringing insects and grubs to their chicks. They arrive at the gourd, pause for a moment on the edge of the entrance hole, and dart inside. The gourd sways slightly, and a chorus of chirping emanates from it. Then the adult pokes its head from the hole, looks about, and flies off to a nearby branch. The bird will often burst into the wren’s characteristic song and then dive to the ground in search of another bit of food. Within seconds, it seems, its mate arrives at the gourd with something in its beak and disappears inside. I expect the chicks will fledge in the next few days and be gone. We’ll miss them.

No, this column has nothing whatsoever to do with chemistry. You haven’t missed something.

Thanks for reading, nevertheless.


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