Familiar Birds Home Page

  Home   About Us   Mission   Sources   E-mail Us
  Index   Contents

 Life Histories 

  Appendix   Links

A chapter from the electronic book:  Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

Marsh Wren
Cistothorus palustris [Prairie Marsh Wren]  

[Published in 1948: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 195: 248-259]

The prairie marsh wren is naturally not evenly distributed throughout its wide range. Marshes of the type it requires are often widely scattered, or entirely lacking over large areas. Small, isolated marshes of less than an acre in extent are usually avoided, but where the larger marshes contain suitable vegetation the wrens may be very numerous and their nests more so.

The favorite haunts of the prairie marsh wren are the large freshwater marshes of the interior, where there is a dense growth of cattails (Typha angustifolia and T. latifolia), bulrushes (Scirpus lacustris), sedges (Carex), or wild rice (Zizania aquatica), which are often mixed with tall marsh grasses of various kinds, or with a scattering growth of button bush (Cephalanthus) and other small bushes. In eastern Massachusetts we sometimes find them along the banks of tidal rivers, where the water is brackish and where there is a thick growth of tall reeds and salt-marsh grass. I have found them, also, in pure stands of wild rice bordering a sluggish inland river.

Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1905) tells of a large marsh in Essex County, Mass., in which "the growth of rushes and grasses is rank and tall, and among these a multitude of Long-billed Marsh Wrens live and build their nests. The rush-like plants in which they breed are chiefly as follows, belonging to several widely separated families: great bulrush (Scirpus lacustris), horse-tail (Equisetum limonsum), sweet flag (Acorus calamus), blue joint grass (Calamagrostis canadensis), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea)."

Spring.--Very little seems to be known about the migrations of the marsh wrens. Elon H. Eaton (1914) says: "Evidently they migrate at night, and high in the air, so as to see their way and escape their enemies more successfully." They arrive in central New York from May 4 to 16.

Dr. Wilfred A. Welter (1935) has given us such a fine life history of the prairie marsh wren, based on extensive observations at Ithaca, N. Y., and at Staples, Minn., that I cannot do better than to quote from the results of his work. At both places he found that the average date for the arrival of the males was May 10 and that the females came between May 20 and 28. Males begin to select and defend their breeding territories soon after their arrival. He says:

The preferred habitat is not, as one might suppose, a dense tangled mass of dried and broken cattails, remnants of the preceding season, but a comparatively open area with a few tattered stalks and an abundance of some species of Carex. . . .

Fighting over territorial rights between males is, to a large extent, a matter of out bluffing the opponent. A male approaching too closely to the boundary of another's area is challenged by the song of the rightful owner. This is usually sufficient for the intruder, but sometimes the challenge is accepted by the visitor giving voice to his emotions and continuing to transgress upon the area in question. The first male in this case fluffs out his feathers to impress the other and, if necessary, flies at his opponent. The usurper usually reciprocates by flying at his neighbor a time or two and then, at least in all instances observed, becomes the vanquished and departs from the scene of battle. . . .

In an area 400 by 650 feet in the Renwick Marsh at the head of Lake Cayuga eight males took up residence in the spring of 1931. . . . The cattail-sedge association was greatly preferred to the grass association by the male birds in selecting territories. . . . Typha angustifolia is much preferred to T. latifolia as a nesting site. . . .The male territories in the favored area were noticeably smaller than in the grassy area. A single monogamous male occupied a territory of from 13,000 to 15,000 square feet, while in the grass association this was extended to approximately 30,000 square feet. The territory of a polygamous male, on the other hand, was considerably larger than that of a monogamous male nesting in the same sort of vegetation. . . . This difference in size can readily be accounted for by the fact that the female birds do not tolerate each other during the nesting season. As a result those males intent upon leading dual lives must separate the objects of their affection as widely as possible.

Courtship.--The courtship of the marsh wren is expressed in song and in display. According to Dr. Welter (1935), "song does not seem to be as important in attracting the female as display. Of course the song originally attracts the prospective mate into the territory and then display becomes first in importance. When the females begin to arrive from the south the males sing almost constantly." The songs at this time often average about 25 per minute, but during nest building the songs are less numerous and the intervals between singing periods become longer.

"The display of the male is quite simple but interesting. when the female is near he will take up his station at a foot or two above her, fluff out his breast feathers and under tail coverts, and jauntily cock his tail over his back so that it almost touches. He now resembles a tiny ball of feathers perched among the reeds. As he becomes more animated he beats his partially folded wings up and down rapidly and sways his head dizzily from side to side. The female probably will fail to notice him, or at least she will not indicate any interest, and, after pursuing her and displaying for several minutes, he will burst into song and fly to another portion of the territory."

The sexual organs of the male are well developed when he arrives, but those of the female are not, so that she has to avoid him until she is ready. Dr. Welter continues:

During the period of nest construction she reaches the height of her development and is ready for the mating act. When the male approaches her at this time, singing, she climbs up a cattail stalk and gives the trill which has already been described. Then she beats her wings rapidly, points her bill toward the zenith, and places her tail well over her back. The male goes through the courtship display previously described. At the proper time he climbs upon the back of his mate, beats his wings rapidly as the cloacae come in contact and copulation is completed. The whole procedure takes but a few seconds. Both remain in the immediate vicinity for a short time, the male with feathers fluffed out and tail up, the female quiet and demure.

It is usually the male who tries to induce the female into copulation but on one occasion the female was observed going through the behavior leading to the mating act to entice the male. In this instance the act had been completed 25 minutes previously. The male, not giving the proper response, was chased by the female among the cattails and it is not known whether she was successful or not.

Dr. Welter believes that the male is "essentially polygamous while the female is not." Several of the territories were inhabited by one male and two females, and in one doubtful case it was thought that a male had three mates. There was another doubtful case of polyandry, where a female had no regular mate, and her nest was placed between the territories of two mated males.

Nesting.--The prairie marsh wren nests in wet marshes, where the water is from a few inches to 2 or 3 feet deep, along the banks of tidal rivers where the water is brackish (in Massachusetts), along sluggish inland streams, around the shores of ponds, and in inland marshes or sloughs. It seems to prefer to build its nest in the narrow leaf cattail (Typha angustifolia), seldom using the broadleaf species (T. latifolia). Early in the season, before the green flags have grown to sufficient height, I have found the nest in some thick bunch of the dead flags of the previous season, but the new green flags are much preferred. The nests are usually placed 1 to 3 feet above water, seldom higher, and are securely fastened to two or more stems of the cattails.

Nests are less often placed in bulrushes (Scirpus), sedges (Carex), wild rice (Zizania), tall marsh grasses, or even small bushes. In North Dakota we found these wrens nesting around the edges of the sloughs in either dead or green cattails, or in the bulrushes. Near Lake Winnipegosis, Manitoba, we found a nest firmly attached to the canes of bulrushes, 4 feet above the water; it was within 4 feet of a canvasback's nest and was lined with down from the nest of the duck. The nest is said to be shaped like a coconut, or globular, but some that I have seen have been egg shaped with the pointed end at the bottom. The entrance is a small round hole, usually near the top.

Dr. Welter (1935) gives an elaborate account of the building of the brood nest, which is done almost entirely by the female, and which requires 5 to 8 days, beginning 6 to 15 days after her arrival. He writes:

The initial effort in building consists of lashing the supporting plants together and in this way form a cup-like foundation upon which the remainder of the nest rests. Carex and Calamagrostis are the chief materials used in this part of the structure. The outer walls which are composed for the most part of long strips of cattail leaves and stems and leaves of sedges and grasses is the roughest part of the structure. Water-soaked materials, often more than a foot long, are used here as they are more pliable and can more easily be woven together. The first strands are woven around the long axis and others, as the nest assumes shape, are put in at various angles. Some of these strands are fastened to the supporting structure by actually weaving these stems into the nest. some of the growing leaves are also woven into the outer walls. If the support is a sedge or a grass, leaves may form a good share of the periphery. An opening is left on one side about two-thirds of the distance from the bottom of the nest. At this stage a dummy would be complete. The walls average at least a half inch in thickness and the external measurements of the entire structure approximate seven and five inches for the vertical and horizontal diameters, respectively. Inner diameters average five and three inches.

The outer shell is a small part of the completed structure, and only 2 days are required to build it. The remainder of the work is done from the inside and one must take a nest to pieces to get an idea of its arrangement. Grass and sedge leaves and small stems are used to form the second layer. This gives the walls firmness and tends to fill in the large air spaces which are necessarily present among the coarse materials of the outer walls.

The next layer to be added seems to function as an insulating region. Cattail down, feathers, small unidentified rootlets, entire plants of Lemna, and decayed fragments of Typha and Carex are the materials most often used. These are also placed into the structure in a wet condition so that, when dry, they form a compact and tight-fitting region which serves as a non-conductor of heat, cold, and moisture.

The innermost region is composed of finely shredded pieces of the vascular materials of the plants forming the outer layers. A large proportion of it is very fine strips of sedges and grasses of the preceding year. Feathers of almost any available sort are used here. Those from the following birds have been identified: Red-winged Blackbird, Virginia Rail, American Bittern, Pheasant, Ruffed Grouse, and domestic chicken. The projection at the opening is a part of this inner lining. This "door-step" or sill is always present in the female nest but is lacking in the nests of the male. It is possible, therefore, to determine the sex which built a given nest by checking for the presence of this sill. This projection forms the floor of the opening and extends farther into the nest than any other part of the lining. . . .

One wonders what the function of this door-step might be. Perhaps it serves as a protection to the eggs and young as the nest, owing to the uneven growth of the supporting plants, often assumes a distorted position which would allow the contents to roll out were it not for this structure. In like manner when the nests are placed in sedges or grasses winds alter the nests to such an extent that the young or eggs would be endangered if no sill were there to prevent the catastrophe.

Several observers have reported mud in the lining of the nests, but Dr. Welter and others have failed to note it; perhaps some mud may be brought in accidentally with material secured from the muddy floor of the marsh; it seems doubtful if the wrens ever carry in mud intentionally.

The long-billed marsh wrens are notorious for building extra or dummy nests, which are almost never occupied as brood nests. These are built by the males, mainly during the 10 days or so intervening between the arrival of the males and the coming of the females. Anywhere from 1 to 10, usually not more than half a dozen, are more or less incompletely constructed by a single male within the limits of his territory. We do not fully understand the reason for these extra nests; several theories have been advanced to account for the habit, which is not wholly confined to this species, but none of the theories appears wholly satisfactory. The most plausible theory seems to be that it gives the birds an outlet for surplus energy during the period of sexual activity, for it almost always ends soon after the females arrive and mating takes place. These male nests are never as fully completed as are the brood nests; they usually do not go beyond the first stage mentioned above, and are often abandoned before they reach even that stage of completion. There is little evidence that they are ever used as brood nests, or as sleeping places for the males, or as territorial land marks.

A. D. DuBois mentions in his notes a nest that was of the "usual construction except that the top of the nest was covered by green leaves bent over and woven together over the top. All the previous nests observed here, having the green leaves woven over (nearly a dozen so noted) were empty nests."

Milton B. Trautman (1940) noted that, out of 208 nests, observed at Buckeye Lake, Ohio, 161 had their openings facing toward the south or west. There was one colony, "which was an exception, for 11 of 19 nests opened toward the northeast."

Eggs.--The marsh wren's set may consist of 3 to 10 eggs; the larger numbers are rare; 5 or 6 seem to be the commonest numbers. They are generally ovate, sometimes more rounded and rarely more pointed; they are not glossy unless heavily incubated. Marsh wrens' eggs are unique in color, the general effect being dull brownish, "Verona brown," to "snuff brown," or the color of dry, powdered baking chocolate. The ground color varies from "snuff brown" to pale "pinkish cinnamon"; it is generally evenly sprinkled with minute dots, or very small spots of darker shades of brown, often partially, or wholly, obscuring the ground color; these markings are sometimes concentrated into a ring or cap at the large end. F. W. Braund tells me that "light or stony gray" eggs are often found in Ohio. I have seen eggs with a pinkish ground color and reddish brown spots that resembled the eggs of the house wren, but these are rare. Very rarely an egg, or a whole set of eggs, is pure white and unmarked.

The measurements of 40 eggs average 16.5 by 12.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 17.8 by 12.1, 17.6 by 13.3, 15.0 by 13.0, and 17.6 by 11.2 millimeters.

Young.--The incubation period, as noted by several observers is about 13 days, and the young remain in the nest for about the same length of times, or a day longer, if not disturbed; Dr. Welter (1935) says 14 days. Incubation seems to be performed wholly by the female, and she feeds the young while they are in the nest; the male assists in this afterward. Following are some of Dr. Welter's observations on the young:

The type of food delivered to the young by the female is determined to a certain extent by the age of the nestlings. At first this consists of very small juicy morsels such as mosquitoes and their larvae, larval Tipulids, midges, and other delicate forms. The mother brings a whole beakful of food to the nest at one time and parcels it out to the hungry occupants. . . . During the morning and evening approximately 10 trips are made per hour with food, but during midday this number is somewhat reduced.

As the nestlings grow the insects brought to the nest become appreciably larger in size. Ground, diving, and long-horned beetles, caterpillars of various assortments, sawflies and other hymenoptera, and other accessible forms now constitute the diet of the ever-hungry young. Sometimes the insect is so large that the young bird experiences difficulties in swallowing it. In such instances the female takes the hexapod to the side of the nest, chops and tears it into several smaller morsels, and then brings it back for a second trial which is usually a success. . . .

Even when the nestlings are very young, little time during the day is given to brooding. Usually after a feeding or two the young are brooded for a few minutes and then feeding is resumed. My records show a total brooding of 18 minutes per hour when the young are 2 days old. As the nestlings increase in size the brooding periods become shorter and the intervals between such periods become longer, so that, after the first week, they are discontinued during the hours of daylight. . . .

The excreta, enclosed in their envelopes, are removed by the female after feeding. These droppings are usually carried some distance from the nest and deposited, but occasionally the female has been observed eating them. . . .

When the young are small the fecal material is deposited in the bottom of the nest. As the nestlings increase in size, however, they maneuver about until they assume a position facing away from the entrance, and the dropping is ejected on the periphery of the nest. During the later period of nest life the young succeed in ejecting the excrement with such force that it is carried over the side of the nest and drops to the ground. . . .

Other waste materials, such as eggshell, infertile eggs, or any young that might die in the nest are carried away. The young increase in weight very rapidly, from about 0.87 gram at hatching to about 11.08 grams at the end of the twelfth day. Meantime the nest has become enlarged and worn as the young increase in size. The young may leave the nest on the twelfth day, if disturbed, but normally not until the fourteenth day. Occasionally one will return to the nest for shelter, but they usually spend the nights perched in the dense flags. The parents care for them for at least 2 weeks, though after the first 10 days they are able to secure some of their own food. The family group remains together through the summer and wanders about at some distance from the nesting place.

It seems to be the consensus that two broods are raised in a season, but not a third. Dr. Welter (1935) found no evidence of a third brood. "The female begins her second nest abut 2 weeks after the young of the first have left the nest. The majority of the nests, then, in the regions studied would be started between July 15 and August 1, with the last week in July the most active period." Probably while the female is building the second nest the male is busy with the first brood and is not very active in building dummy nests.

Plumages.--Dr. Welter (1936) has published another excellent paper on the development of the plumage in the young marsh wren and on subsequent molts, to which the reader is referred for details; it is fully illustrated with drawings and photographic halftones. It is evident from the photographs that the young bird is practically fully feathered in the juvenal plumage before it leaves the nest, though the wings are not fully developed and the tail is still rudimentary. Dr. Dwight (1900) says that the natal down is white. In the juvenal plumage the young wren is much like the adult, but the crown is uniformly dull black, without the dividing brown area; the white streaks on the back are very faint or lacking; and the white superciliary stripe is indistinct. Dr. Dwight says that the first winter plumage is "acquired by a partial postjuvenal molt beginning about the middle of August which involves the body plumage, the wing coverts, probably the tertiaries, but not the rest of the wings nor the tail," young and old becoming practically indistinguishable. Dr. Welter (1936) differs from Dr. Dwight, as to the extent of this molt, saying: "Juvenals collected during the fall of 1931 which are now in the Cornell Collection show a molt of both rectrices and remiges." These two authorities also differ as to the prenuptial molt. Dr. Dwight says that the nuptial plumage, in both adults and young birds, "is acquired by a complete prenuptial moult as indicated by the relatively unworn condition of the feathers when the birds arrive in May." He had no positive evidence of the molt, however. Dr. Welter could "find no evidence of a prenuptial molt in the series of specimens examined." The plumage of birds living in such dense vegetation must be subjected to rather severe abrasion,  which might require a renewal of plumage oftener than once a year; and it may be that the prenuptial molt takes place during the late winter or very early spring, before the birds arrive on their breeding grounds. Dr. Witmer Stone (1896) agrees with Dr. Dwight's view, and I have seen some half a dozen specimens, taken in North and South Carolina, Florida, New Mexico, and Mexico, between February 23 and March 28, that show various stages of a complete prenuptial molt. Whether these are adults or young birds I do not know.

Food.--The marsh wren feeds almost entirely on insects and their larvae, which it obtains on the marsh vegetation or on the floor of the marsh. Dr. Welter (1935) says that "much of the food is obtained near or from the surface of the water. . . . It is not unusual to observe the bird as he sights a juicy morsel fly into the air and capture it in the manner of a flycatcher. Insects as large as dragonflies are taken in this way. . . . Coleoptera and Diptera assume the highest rank while various other orders are represented to a lesser degree. Carabidae and Dytiscidae occur more frequently among the beetles than any other forms while a large percentage of the Diptera belong to the Tipulidae."

F. H. King (1883) reports from Wisconsin that "of 14 stomachs examined one ate 1 ant; one, a caterpillar; one, 3 beetles; three, 3 moths; one a small grasshopper, one, 5 grasshopper eggs; one 1 dragonfly; and one a small snail." Mosquito larvae are probably prominent in the food, as are larvae of other flying insects, diminutive mollusks, and aquatic insects. Forbush (1929), referring to Massachusetts, says that "in the salt marsh at high tide, it feeds on insects which crawl up on the grass and reeds, and at low tide it feeds largely on minute marine animals which it finds on or near the ground."

Behavior.--The marsh wren is much more often heard than seen. As we drift along some quiet stream bordered by extensive cattail marshes, we hear all about us the gurgling, bubbling songs, or the chattering, scolding notes of the birds, but not one is in sight in the dense jungle of flags. Perhaps one may explode into the air, rising a few feet above the cattails with an outburst of enthusiastic song and drift down again into cover; or we may see one make a longer flight from one part of the marsh to another, buzzing along on slow, direct, steady flight with rapid wing beats. If we watch quietly, curiosity may prompt one to come peering at us with furtive glances from the shelter of his retreat, clinging with feet wide apart to two swaying stems like a little acrobat doing the "splits"; his tail is held erect or pointed saucily forward and his head is lifted so high that head, body, and tail seem to form a feathered circle. He climbs nimbly up and down the reeds like a feathered gymnast, now gliding down to the base to pick some food from the water, now gleaning along the stems, and again swinging jauntily from a swaying top. He is the embodiment of active energy, always in motion, never still for a moment, always chattering, scolding, or singing. He is a shy and elusive little mite; if we make the slightest motion while watching his antics, he vanishes instantly into the depths of his reedy jungle.

Although most of the marsh wrens probably live in harmony with their neighbors in the marsh, some, perhaps many, have formed the bad habit of sucking the eggs of least bitterns and red-winged blackbirds, as reported by several observers. For example, Dr. Chapman (1900) saw one of these wrens puncture all the eggs in two nests of least bitterns, and he attempted to photograph the bird in the act; the wren did not eat the contents of the eggs, though it may have returned to do so later; it looked like a case of pure viciousness. And Dr. A. A. Allen (1914) says that "of 51 nests of the Redwing observed in a limited area, the eggs of 14 were destroyed" by marsh wrens, "and it is not at all uncommon to find one or more of the eggs of a nest with neat, circular holes in one side, such as would be made by the small, sharp beak of a wren." One that he watched "began to drink the contents much as a bird drinks water. After a few sips, it grasped the eggshell in its beak and flew off into the marsh, where it continued its feast." Dr. Welter (1935) evidently thinks that such behavior is exceptional for he says: "Many nests of other species of birds were under observation in the marsh and at no time were punctured eggs found or other indications of egg eating by the Marsh Wren observed."

Voice.--Wilson (Wilson and Bonaparte, 1832) evidently did not admire the vocal powers of the marsh wren, saying that "it would be mere burlesque to call them by the name of song," for "you hear a low, crackling sound, something similar to that produced by air bubbles forcing their way through mud or boggy ground when trod upon"; this is a fair description of some of the notes, but he apparently was not referring to the full song, parts of which are quite musical. F. Schuyler Mathews (1921) says that the song "ripples and bubbles along in a fashion similar to that of the Winter or House Wren, but with a glassy tinkle in tone not characteristic of the songs of the other species and a tempo perceptibly more rapid than that of the House Wren's music." Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1905) writes: "The song begins with a scrape like the tuning of a violin followed by a trill with bubbles, gurgles, and rattles, depending no doubt on the skill or mood of the performer, at times liquid and musical, at other times rattling and harsh, but always vigorous. It ends abruptly but is generally followed by a short musical whistle or trill, as if the Wren were drawing in its breath after its efforts. I have heard one sing fifteen times in a minute."

Dr. Welter's (1935) description is only slightly different; he dissects the song into three parts; first a grinding sound consisting of two to five notes with somewhat the quality of the aac notes of the white-breasted nuthatch; then comes the more musical "warble-like" part, which reminds him "of a sewing machine of the older sort being run rapidly, but of course it is less metallic and more musical. It has much of the spontaneity of the House Wren's song but is otherwise quite distinct. This middle section begins at a low pitch, climbs upward, and then descends again." The third section he calls a trill which is again "quite low but lacks the harshness of the beginning of the song. . . .

"This entire song is given during May and most of June. Toward the end of the month, however, the last part is often omitted and often neither the beginning nor the end is heard." The song period seems to cease entirely in August, but the full song has been heard in October, which may mean that a second song period occurs in fall.

The marsh wren is a persistent singer, chiefly during the early morning and the evening hours, but during the height of the season it sings all day and often at night. Only the male sings. He sings while clinging to the reeds or while moving among them; he indulges in his most delightful flight song while flying above the vegetation from one part of his territory to the other; or, rising in the air to a height of several feet, he flutters down to cover again in full song.

This wren also has several alarm, call, or chattering notes. According to Dr. Welter (1935)--

the "kek kek" or "tshuk" is given by the female. The male's note sometimes resembles this also but can usually be distinguished by its more grating nature and may be described as "rrek." A series of notes is usually given together so the "rrek's" do not sound very distinct as they roll into each other producing a chattering. The "kek" notes, however, while also given together, maintain their identity. The female has a hissing sound that she gives if too closely pressed by the male. Preceding copulation the female has been heard to give a trill like that at the end of the male's song.

The call notes of the young are quite similar to those of the adult. The nestling, when the female arrives with food, gives a beady "peep" or "peet." At first these notes are scarcely audible but as the young become older and stronger the "peet" is clearly heard. As the young leave the nest the "peet" gradually develops into a "queck." It is much more squeaky than the adult "kek" and also lacks the woody quality. The notes of the juvenal become more and more like those of the adult until they are indistinguishable.

He says that the songs of the young males begin late in August and are entirely different from those of the adult. They reminded him at first of "the efforts of a not altogether successful Catbird," but they were "given in a more rasping manner. The grating notes of the beginning and the trill at the end are usually omitted by young birds."

Mr. Trautman (1940) "timed an isolated singing male whose territory was in a small stand of cattail and found that between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. his average was 9 songs a minute." Another, in a similar situation, sang at the rate of 11 songs a minute between 1:40 a.m. and 2:50 a.m. on a moonlight night. The singing slowed down during the middle of the day, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., to 4 songs a minute. "The amount of singing done by these birds declined sharply after mid-August, and by September 5, only an occasional, half-hearted song could be heard."

Aretas A. Saunders writes to me: "The song of this bird is rather low-pitched and guttural, or sometimes squeaky. It consists of a series of rapid notes, so rapid as to call the result a trill, but more frequently slow enough to count the number. In 26 of my records, without trills, the number of notes varies from 8 to 16 and the average number is 12. In a majority of the songs the notes are all equal in time, but some have portions where the notes are more rapid in part of the song. These portions are sometimes the beginning and sometimes the end, or occasionally the middle of the song.

"The pitch of the notes varies from C'' to C'''. One record is all on one pitch (B'''). A number of others are all on one pitch except the first or the final note, but others vary in numerous ways. The greatest variation in pitch in any one song is 2 1/2 tones, and the average 1 1/2 tones. I have occasionally seen a bird sing a flight song, when the song is somewhat more prolonged than I have described, but I have never succeeded in getting a record of this song.

"In spite of the simplicity of this song the individuals vary it considerably. I have recorded five different songs from one individual. The quality sometimes changes from guttural to squeaky in the same song. The time of songs varies from 1 1/5 to 2 seconds, though flight songs are probably longer."

Field marks.--One hardly needs field marks to recognize a long-billed marsh wren, for it is wren like in appearance and behavior, and no other wren lives in such wet marshes. If perchance it is seen in the drier part of a marsh or meadow, it can be distinguished from the short-billed marsh wren by the blackish, unstreaked crown, the white line over the eye, and the black upper back streaked with white.

Enemies.--Hawks and owls would have difficulty in capturing these active little birds as they dive into their dense retreats. Red-winged blackbirds are often seen chasing wrens for reasons stated above. Dr. Welter (1935) mentioned three small mammals, meadow mice, jumping mice, and Bonaparte's weasels, as probably guilty of destroying some eggs and young. He says that Dr. A. A. Allen has seen bronzed grackles eating the young and has found bumble bees occupying the nests. Fleas, lice, and hippoboscid flies sometimes damage the young.

Fall.--Dr. Welter writes: "There is no marked exodus of birds from the marsh at a given time in the fall. At first the young of the year remain in family groups but, as the time of departure approaches, there is an apparent flocking together of young birds, usually  near the water's edge. At this time 25 or 30 birds may be observed together feeding near the surface of the water. . . . The first birds to leave are the adults and some of the young of the first brood." No adults were found after September 10; the birds that remain after that date are young birds, mostly those of the second brood, either in juvenal plumage or molting out of it. "As these birds complete the molt they, too, depart for their winter homes so that, by October 20, only a few scattered individuals remain. By the first of November these, also, have departed."

Elon H. Eaton (1914) describes the departure thus:

On one occasion while I was concealed in a blind watching for ducks to enter the marsh, I saw the last representative of this species leave the marshes at the foot of Canandaigua Lake. It was a cool night late in October when the moon was at the full. The little fellow uttered a feeble warble which attracted my attention and then rose from near my station, fluttering higher and higher into the air until lost at an elevation of about 300 feet, where I caught my last glimpse of him against the full moon. The following morning when I visited the marsh no more wrens were left. Evidently they migrate at night, and high in the air, so as to see their way and escape their enemies more successfully.

Winter.--Most of the prairie marsh wrens migrate in fall and spend the winter in Mexico or along the Gulf coast to western Florida. But some few individuals remain in their summer haunts all winter in the shelter of the dense cattail marshes. There are winter records for Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Ohio. It may be that they are more common in winter than we realize, for they are silent and remain well hidden in the marshes where they are hard to find.


Marsh Wren*
Cistothorus palustris [Prairie Marsh Wren]

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1948.  Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 195: 248-259. United States Government Printing Office


Return to FAMILIAR BIRDS Home Page
Return to beginning of document