How to Attract Wrens to the Backyard

Wrens are thirsty birds. Installing water features will make your backyard a desirable destination for them.

Wrens also stay where they find safety, nesting space, and food.

But when you add features to your backyard to attract wrens is as important as what you do to attract them.

Timing Attractions for Wrens to Your Backyard

Wrens are summer visitors to places in the United States where most winters see snow and freezing temperatures.

They arrive in April to stake out their territory. Within two weeks, successful wrens will have found a mate.

They will build a nest, lay their young, and fly south in late September or early October.

If you live in the Gulf Coast states, where snow and ice are rare, you will see wrens during the winter.

They seek warmer climates where insects are still active from October to April.

And if you live along the Pacific Coast in California or anywhere in Latin America, as far south as Argentina, you may see wrens all year round.

Most Backyards Aren’t Set Up as Wren Habitat

Wrens spending the summer in the northern two-thirds of the United States and the southern half of Canada tend to search for food and build their nests in backyards of homes in the suburbs.

Despite the fact that wrens usually hang out in backyards of houses in the suburbs of major cities, ornithologists publishing in Scientific Reports believe that most backyards aren’t very good homes for them.

The challenge wrens face when they raise their young in backyards is that resources are so scattered that the two parents can’t coordinate their efforts in taking care of their young.

One parent stays behind to guard the baby birds while the other parent searches for food to feed the whole family.

In suburban settings, many of the caterpillars that wrens feed their hatchlings are killed by bug sprays.

Suburban areas have heat islands, so caterpillars are abundant too early in the spring to be available for feeding baby birds.

The male wren will fly as far as is necessary to find the high-fat, high-energy caterpillars the baby birds need to store the body fat they will need to be able to fly south just a few weeks after they are born.

The female wren will give in to the begging of the babies to be fed and give them lower-energy foods like aphids, moths, and spiders.

The result of not having enough caterpillars nearby is that the male wren becomes malnourished and vulnerable to predators and disease.

It may not have enough energy reserves to survive the trip south for the winter.

The young also become malnourished and vulnerable. Wrens that build their nests in backyards without supplemental feeding from homeowners

When wrens build their nests in a rural location, scientists have found, both parents feed their young about 10 times an hour.

In backyards, male wrens only manage to find caterpillars about five times an hour and female wrens find some kind of bug about seven times an hour.

Wrens have low survival rates when they don’t get help from homeowners, unless they find locations out in the woods.

Attract Wrens with Forest Features and Nesting Sites, Sustain Them with Food

When wrens arrive in the spring, they look for potential nesting sites.

Provide Wrens with Cover

Wrens are small birds. They like to stay near cover. They prefer dense forests in flood plains. The reason wrens look for trees is that trees attract caterpillars.

An invasion of leaf-eating caterpillars is exactly what wrens need to feed their young.

It helps if your backyard borders dense woods, but it isn’t absolutely necessary to have a thick stand of trees to attract them to your backyard if there are trees nearby.

You can provide wrens with the cover they need by leaving a few shrubs untrimmed, so they can make an easy escape to shelter when they see a hawk or owl.

Or you can leave a brush pile in an out of the way of foot traffic at one side of your yard, preferably someplace that won’t be noticed by pets and people.

Attract Wrens with Water Features

The natural habitat for wrens is flood plains. Flood plains are usually next to running water.

The sounds of brooks and small streams — gurgling, bubbling, flowing, splashing, and dripping — will pique the curiosity of migrating wrens.

They will drop down from their migration flightpath to check out your backyard.

Of course, water features aren’t just attractive to wrens.

Other migrating birds like warblers, buntings, grosbeaks, bluebirds, hummingbirds, orioles, tanagers, waxwings, and robins are also attracted to water.

But water is essential for keeping wrens in your backyard.

Think of water features as a “landing strip” for migrating wrens.

Place water features in an out-of-the-way part of your backyard that offers them safety and food as soon as they arrive.

Surround each water feature (you’ll need more than one) with dense plantings that provide these tiny birds with cover from their predators.

Place them along corridors of dense shrubs or trees that provide protection as they move from nest to water to food and back to their nests.

What kinds of water features provide ideal cover for wrens?

The idea water feature for wrens is ambitious, but effective:

Consider a bubbling-rock water feature. Place it next to large trees.

Then add shrubs around the water feature so wrens won’t be vulnerable when they come to drink and bathe.

The rock gives wrens a place to preen after they use the water. Leafy plants feed insects, so wrens can get a meal, too.

Or set up a recirculating waterfall.

Waterfalls make splashing sounds. They can be positioned so the falling water glistens in the sun, attracting wrens that are flying overhead.

You will probably need to install weatherproof outdoor electrical outlets, because solar panels take up so much room they discourage the birds.

A recirculating waterfall feature needs a 35- to 50-gallon (150 to 200 liter) reservoir.

The catch basin can be as much as 12 feet (3 meters) across and no more than 1 inch (25 mm) deep.

If you find a recirculating waterfall that you like with a deeper basin, fill the bottom with gravel and small rocks.

Wrens can drown in deep water features if they don’t have something to help them keep their balance.

If these water features are too ambitious, you can always set up a pedestal fountain.

You should place it where you will have a line of sight to watch the birds. It also should be no more than an inch deep. Use pebbles and gravel if it is deeper than 1 inch.

Still-water bird baths need to be cleaned about once a week. The fact that the water isn’t moving isn’t harmful to wrens.

Wrens are adapted to still water in a surprising way. Still water is breeding ground for mosquitoes, some of which can spread West Nile Virus.

The virus attacks the crows and jays that sometimes kill and feed on wrens, but doesn’t infect wrens.

Provide Food for Your Wrens

Once wrens have discovered your backyard, it’s important to feed them if you want them to build nests.

The most important thing you can do to feed your wrens is very simple”:

Don’t spray for bugs.

Let the wrens eat them.

Wrens are ravenous insect eaters. They eat insects at every stage of development — egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

Caterpillars are preferred for feeding hatchlings still in the nest, but wrens will also eat bees, beetles, butterflies, crickets, flies, grasshoppers, spiders, and wasps.

Wrens will pay their “rent” by keeping your backyard nearly bug-free. They will leave just enough bugs to make sure there are more next year.

When wrens can’t find insects, they will eat berries. They won’t make berries their main food source, however.

In addition to letting wrens take over your insect control, you can add to their diet with these simple steps:

  • Leave grass trimmings in the yard when you mow. They will gather moisture and provide habitat for snails and slugs, which the wrens will also eat.
  • Don’t gather all the leaves that fall in autumn for composting. (We trust that you don’t burn them!) Allow some leaves to overwinter to provide habitat for insects and worms to feed birds the next summer.
  • Use tray and platform feeders to offer wrens mealworms, crushed peanuts, and suet. You can also smear peanut butter and/or suet directly on a tree to feed wrens in a safe location.

Nesting Sites

In the wild in North America, wrens like to use nesting sites abandoned by woodpeckers.

In Mexico and South and Central America wrens live up to their name (house wren) by preferring to build their nests in houses.

Wrens take about a week to build their nests in a cup shape. The cup may be oriented so the opening is at the top or to one side.

Wrens build the framework for their nests from dry sticks.

They line them with strips of bark, feathers, hair, wool, grass clippings, moss, spider cocoons, roots, shoots, and trash.

It’s the male’s job to find the sticks for the nest.

The female supervises construction, and removes any parts she does not like. The female does the final work of lining the nest.

Wrens are unusually feisty and territorial considering their size. They will fill the nests of other birds with sticks to make them unusable.

They will poke holes in the eggs of other birds so they do not hatch.

When you encourage wrens to nest, you are introducing a fierce competitor to other small birds in your backyard.

But if you want wrens to have their young where you can watch, here are some general guidelines:

  • Wrens will sometimes build nests in birdhouses. They look for the hole in a birdhouse rather than a particular size or shape. They will accept or reject a birdhouse based on the appearance of its entryway. Smaller, about 1 inch (25 mm) in diameter, is better. You don’t want the entry large enough for predator birds, squirrels, and snakes to get inside.
  • Wrens may build several nests in spring for multiple broods of eggs over the summer. They may use “spare” nests to find materials to maintain the nests they build earlier in the year.
  • The female is fed by the male while she broods her eggs in the nest. Incubation takes 12 to 19 days. Both parents feed the young while they are still in the nest. This process takes 15 to 19 days. This means that wrens in their nests benefit from supplemental food for about 5 weeks after the female lays her eggs.

Wrens are known to build their nests in unexpected places, such as coffee cans, used tea kettles, and flower pots.

Place these kinds of items in sheltered places to give them an opportunity to try them.

How to Keep Bewick’s Wren in Your Backyard Year-Round

If you live in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or along the Pacific coast from Baja California north to British Columbia, you may have Bewick’s wrens in your yard year-round.

These wrens are easy to recognize. They have long tails with black bars and white corners. They like to move their tail feathers a lot.

How to Attract Wrens to the Backyard

Bewick’s wren has mostly died out east of the Mississippi River. East of the Mississippi, these wrens would fly south for the winter and return to New England and Canada to mate and raise their young every summer.

In recent decades, Bewick’s wren has retreated to the American Southwest and the Pacific Coast, and it stays in place all year.

Bewick’s wren likes dry grasses and low shrubs. They will catch insects at heights of up to 10 feet (3 meters), hanging upside down to get insects on the undersides of trees.

These wrens kill their prey by smashing it against a limb, and then swallowing it whole. They will wipe their mouths on nearby tree bark after every insect they eat.

You can supplement the diet of these birds with suet, mealworms, and crushed peanuts.

The male will build a nest in a tree or a birdhouse each spring, and if the female approves, they will raise as many as two broods of young every year.

Consistent feeding is the secret to success for keeping Bewick’s wren in your backyard — along with protecting them from feral cats and other predators.

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