Late Summer Songs of Carolina Wrens

Late in the morning on a mostly cloudy day, after a good rain last night, the sun now trying to break through, trees still dripping rainwater. An Eastern Wood-Pewee far down in the woods sings its full song as it moves from place to place. I can’t always hear the wheee-oo at the end, but hear the sweet pee-a-WEE, over and over.

Two Carolina Wrens sing from different directions, singing different songs – one, jubilee-jubilee-jubilee; the other, churry-churry-churry, and what-a-WHEET-aree-WHEET-aree. Their songs are so familiar that often I don’t pay much attention to them, but at this time of year, when there are few other birdsongs to compete with them, I always notice them more.

Mostly the woods around our house have continued to be pretty quiet, with little bird activity and few migrants. I hear the distant rattle of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, the calls of Crows and Blue Jays, the humming zoom of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird coming to the feeder. A gusty breeze rattles the leaves of the white oaks, and they clack and shudder as rainwater showers down. Grasshoppers and crickets sing, and now and then a few cicadas raise a metallic whine. Raindrops glisten from the tips of little red tomatoes on the ragged brown vines in pots on the deck, one drop hanging from each fruit. Wind chimes ring softly. A Goldfinch sings its per-chick-o-ree song as it flies over.

Now a Carolina Wren – maybe a female – gives a long, raspy, rattling trill, almost a hiss. And another, a male, follows this closely with a bright CHEER-uppy, CHEER-uppy, CHEER-uppy, CHEEP, repeated several times.

There’s the distant blurp of a Bluebird. One quiet Robin flies in, stops briefly in the top branches of a dead pine, then flies into the woods. I’ve been watching and listening for migrants, with no luck so far, except for the Eastern Wood-Pewees. In the thick foliage around me, I hear tiny little chips, sips, tseets, whits barely audible, tantalizing, and I think mostly they are probably Chickadees and Titmice, and maybe insects, maybe my imagination. But there could be some warblers there, hidden in the leaves.

A Carolina Wren gives its long burbling call, then fusses fiercely, zhjee-zhjee-zhjee! Another sings churry-churry-churry-churry-churry-CHEER. And still another, in a different direction, calls a loud and repeated cheeer-cheeer-cheer-cheeer!

There’s the tsup of a Phoebe somewhere in the woods, and a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird comes alone for an unusually long, uninterrupted session at the feeder, going round and round it and sipping from each of the holes two or three times. A Phoebe sings, way down in the woods.

The mood of the day is quiet, somber and gray. Too quiet, I think, but I’m probably just impatient, and restless because a fractured ankle is keeping me from walking in the neighborhood or in the woods. So most of my birding right now has to be done from the porch or the deck. Not being able to walk makes me appreciate more how important a part of my every day a walk has always been. It’s when I do my best thinking, and also – on the best walks – when I succeed in letting go of restless thoughts and feel most fully alive, observing, but not thinking.

A Carolina Wren gives a long Downy Woodpecker-like trill, then breaks it up into several short trill-pieces. I don’t think I’ve noticed that call before. Another sings chorry-chorry-chorry, and another, chur-WEEE-chur, WEE-chur, WEE-chur, WEE and a third, chiminy-chiminy-chiminy-CHEE. The three wrens seem to be trying out different songs on each other. They switch songs frequently, and seem always to answer one song with a different one.

I’m not at all sure this is what’s happening here, but in his new book, Birdsong by the Seasons, Donald Kroodsma says of wrens, “. . . get two rock wrens or marsh wrens or sedge wrens or Bewick’s wrens or Carolina wrens or house wrens or winter wrens engaged in a dispute, and they pull out all the stops, using a much greater variety of songs than when each male sings by himself.” (page 81)

A male Carolina Wren may have a repertoire of 20-50 different songs. Though spring and summer are the main singing seasons, mated pairs stay together year-round, defending their territory, and the male continues to sing. The female, on the other hand, adds only buzzy or rattling trills or calls, though as Kroodsma points out in his first book, The Singing Life of Birds, the line between what we call a “song” and what we consider a bird’s “call” is not entirely clear. His detailed descriptions and analyses of the songs and calls of many different species make fascinating reading, and open up new ways of listening to birds and thinking about what we are hearing.

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