The Christmas Caroler of Birds

The cold, pale mornings of late November and early December here begin with the song of a Carolina Wren, a familiar, very common small brown bird with an upturned tail, a dusky-orange breast and a pale stripe over its eye, often singing from a perch among the dry, rustling brown leaves that still cling to the oaks outside our bedroom windows. In contrast to the muted colors of the trees and shrubs all around, the bright, musical song of the wren is as colorful and warm as a Christmas carol – not the only bird singing at this time of year, but one of the few, and the one most in tune with the holiday season.

A male Carolina Wren welcomes even the coldest, dreariest late-fall morning with a bold teakettle, teakettle, teakettle – or heard a different way maybe, merrily, merrily, merrily – answered by a female’s long, ringing, trilled cheeer.

The singing continues off and on all day, in a variety of different patterns of two or three phrases, as well as trills, burbles, buzzes, chitters, bleeps and other calls. I don’t know how often one particular Carolina Wren might sing at this time of year, but there are many scattered throughout the neighborhood, so their songs and calls are heard from shrubs, trees, thickets, fields and woods – and now and then from inside a garage that’s been left open. Often two or three males seem to be singing back and forth to each other, repeating the same songs. At other times, I’ve stood and listened to four or five different wrens singing in different directions, all singing a different kind of song. A Carolina Wren may have a repertoire of more than 50 different songs, though around 30 is said to be the average. And while each song is distinct, the full-throated, confident tone is always recognizable.

One of their most frequent vocalizations at this time of year is something that sounds to me like a burble. It’s a fast, repeated, sort of bouncing purp-purp-purp-purp that they seem to utter most often when moving around, a traveling chatter.

Though so common and familiar they’re often overlooked, Carolina Wrens are remarkable singers and ingenious, curious, feisty, entertaining little birds – and this time of year is a good time to appreciate the beauty and spirit they bring to everyday life in a suburban yard. Things would be a lot less interesting around here without them.

Around our house, a Carolina Wren is a frequent visitor to both feeders and birdbaths. They cling to a feeder for several minutes at a time, eating seeds, nuts or fruit. There’s almost always one or two under the bushes out front, and usually another one or two around the back deck or in the edge of the woods. This morning I looked out the kitchen window and a Carolina Wren was perched on the deck rail, bobbing up and down as it sang a few bars, then it searched along the rail and down on the deck among the piles of fallen leaves for hidden spiders or larvae or something, burbling as it went.

One morning in late November, on a cold but sunny day, I watched as a Carolina Wren took a bath in the birdbath out front. The water was shallow, with a thick layer of soggy dark-brown fallen leaves, but seemed to suit the wren’s purposes, as it dipped in, fluttering its wings and submerged completely. Then it popped out to perch on the rim and look around sharply for a few seconds before hopping back into the water to wash itself again, splashing as it dipped its head under and turned itself around. Each time it came up to perch on the rim, it sat in a ray of sunlight, which made its breast glow rosy brown. It did this four or five times, and then, after the last one, flew to one of the feeders and immediately began to eat. Some days, life is good.

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