December 6, 2018
Cactus Wren
It was a cold December desert morning, half inch of rain having fallen through the night.  I arrived at the office complex’s parking lot early, started to get out of my car, then stopped when I saw him.  He came out from under the bed of a pick-up parked across from me.  Jaunty and inquisitive, he took several fast steps, then paused head cocked, rather like a robin on a suburban lawn.  Then he jumped up to the front bumper and disappeared behind the grill.

Fascinated now, I sat and watched as he reappeared, fluttered onto an engine strut and disappeared under the chassis.  Soon, out he came with a cigarette butt, crossed the pavement to a yardman’s pick-up beside me and stopped near the back tire to inspect his prize.  Deeming it inedible, he then flew into the bed of this second truck and proceeded to sort through the wheelbarrows, shovels and other tools.

Apparently finding no breakfast there, his next move took him to the roof of the truck’s cab.  Had the sun been out, I expect he would have broken out in song and basked for a while, but there was no warmth on this gray day.  Not wanting to be late for my appointment, I opened my car door.  Off he flew, probably to join his mate who was undoubtedly foraging down a different row of vehicles.  Opportunistic and adaptive, their life goes on despite the vast changes taking place to their native desert.

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If, in 1931, you voted for Greater Roadrunner to be Arizona’s state bird, get over it.  Cactus Wren was the overwhelming winner, and here’s why.  Next time your eastern relatives visit and want to see a roadrunner, good luck with that.  You’ll have to put a lot of mileage on your car and take a lot of time off the calendar before you just happen to chance upon one.  On the other hand, if you spend half an hour around sunrise in any of the Valley’s desert parks with Saguaro, Cholla, and Mesquite, a Cactus Wren will announce himself and “sing” lustily from atop a bush or cactus.

In 1931 Cactus Wrens were thought, arguably, to be the most numerous bird in the state.  As urban development has fragmented their required desert habitat, they have certainly declined somewhat, but they are still common, conspicuous, and curious about us.  In other words, they are not hard to find and observe.

Our Cactus Wren is an anomaly in a family of birds that are small, inconspicuous if not actually secretive, and well reputed as songsters.  It is large, brash, and noisy, and I haven’t heard anyone mention “beautiful” as an adjective for its hoarse, raspy, accelerating “chew, chew, chew, chew,” only euphemistically referred to as a song.  That’s the male’s song.  Females seldom sing, then only with a weak voice, and rarely from an exposed, prominent lookout.

As conspicuous as the species can be, their nests are even more so, to the point that anyone who has ever walked through a desert area has seen one even if not recognizing it or knowing to whom it belonged.  Cactus Wren nests are a large mass of sticks and dried grasses shaped like a glass retort with an entrance hole at one end and a narrow vestibule leading to the nest chamber, typically in Saguaro, Cholla, or Mesquite where thorns discourage large predators.

If the nests themselves were not conspicuous enough, consider two additional aspects of our this wren’s outgoing personality:  as the female incubates, the male stays busy building additional nests both as decoys and as night roosts for himself; and he invariably adorns these nests with bright, conspicuous materials.  The most remarkable I’ve seen have incorporated Kleenex, tinfoil from fast food take-out, and party balloon ties, red, blue, and green.

Cactus Wrens mate for life, they are mostly insectivorous, and they get water from their food without actually drinking.  They spend their time gleaning and probing, but the wren grocery is down among the leaves and rocks underneath trees and brush.  This is why most observations of our largest wren are of “singing” males.  When his morning advertising is over, he and his mate conduct their daily business out of sight just like other wrens but unlike their closest avian relatives, the nuthatches and gnatcatchers, which are much more conspicuous on their daily food procurations.

Recently, after spotting a male doing his sunrise thing atop a Saguaro, I was able to follow his descent onto the desert floor where he joined his mate and they proceeded, often side by side, to explore beneath the Brittlebush and Creosote for breakfast, poking into stem tangles and occasionally even jumping, roadrunner like, to snatch moths and spiders from the lowest hanging leaves.  By far the most time was spent flipping small stones with their bills to see if any edibles were hiding underneath.

I tried to work ahead of them, guessing the direction of their foraging, and when I guessed right they would often pop out briefly from beneath a bush and explore right toward me as I stood or crouched in the open.  On several occasions they came to within a few feet, so close I was unable to focus.  I believe this is what birders refer to as “confiding.”

Every birder has a few tales about remarkably confiding birds, and my best one speaks to the Cactus Wren’s well documented curiosity.  Years ago on a visit to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum I noticed a pair of Cactus Wrens foraging through the parking lot, poking into the grills and bumpers of the cars, just the fronts because they had obviously learned that vehicles don’t squash bugs doing fast backward.  It was on the cusp of summer, so I left the windows cracked, an inch or so, and went into the museum.

Returning to my car for lunch, here’s what I saw.  A Cactus Wren was hanging on the front passenger side window, peering inside.  I stopped and watched in disbelief as it wiggled through the crack and began investigating every nook and cranny of the interior.  Luckily my lunch was secure inside a zipped pack.  Ten minutes later the wren, curiosity satisfied, emerged the same way it had entered.  The most interesting thing was how birds that glean and probe are adapted to flatten their bodies and squeeze through spaces you’d never think they could access.

As much as I have observed Cactus Wrens through the years, I’ve yet to see them bathe or copulate.  I have seen one dumpster diving in a park, though, and I have seen them catch and eat small lizards.  I once walked into a thirty second negotiation between two males, poking and jabbing at one another on the ground as dust and feathers flew and a female stood nearby flashing her wings.  Our other wrens—seven wren species can be seen in Arizona—are cute, melodious, and secretive.  Cactus Wrens are none of these things, but they are certainly interesting and well deserving of their State Bird title.
Cactus Wren