The Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) is found throughout the Desert Southwest. Indeed, after the Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) there’s no other bird that’s so iconic a symbol of our region. Cactus Wrens live in hot arid regions of Southern California, a sliver of both southern Utah and Nevada, New Mexico, and western Texas south into Mexico. Desert and foothill areas that have cactus, mesquite, yucca, and other desert scrub will almost certainly have Cactus Wrens. Urban and suburban parks and neighborhoods with these same plants will also attract Cactus Wrens.
This is a chunky wren, and at 17.78 – 20.32 cm (roughly 7 to 8 inches) the largest wren in North America, so you can be forgiven for wondering if it’s a wren after all. Another un-wrenlike characteristic is that Cactus Wrens don’t cock their tails up over their backs as all the other members of the family do. Instead, they fan their tail feathers, flashing the white tips on them. This is a photographer’s dream shot.
The rest of their plumage also makes them ideal subjects for the camera. A whitish stripe extends from just behind each eye to just short of their long, slightly down curved bill, making a distinct “eyebrow.” Its cinnamon buffy throat and breast are heavily spotted with black, while the brown back and wings are barred with black and white. All in all, this is a strikingly handsome bird.
Any one of the above visual characteristics in and of itself is almost a certain clincher when you’re trying to identify these birds. Taken together, there’s no other bird it could be.
But, as with many birds, you’ll likely hear a Cactus Wren before you see it. Their signature vocalization is unforgettable. When you hear what sounds like someone trying — unsuccessfully — to start up an old run down car on a cold morning, you’re hearing a Cactus Wren.
The male and female look almost identical and during breeding season both are kept busy. Most often the nest is built in large part by the male, but it’s not at all uncommon for the female of the pair to help as well. They form pair bonds for life and defend their territory against invaders and predators. For the male, this will usually include building one and sometimes two dummy nests. All nests are usually in the thickest part of Cholla cactus or in spiny trees. Thus, snakes that prey on the eggs and young are discouraged from getting at the nest. And when they do, they may only have a one in two or one in three chance of finding anything. Cactus Wren nests are large and shaped a bit like deformed footballs. The extra nests also serve other purposes. In colder weather, the birds roost in them to help them stay warm. Also, if there is an abundant supply of food and the pair of wrens got an early start raising broods, they may raise a second brood in a breeding season. When this happens, in the vast majority of cases, the female will lay the second clutch of eggs in one of the other nests.
These are not shy birds and are just as often seen hopping and running along on the ground as they’re found in cactus fastnesses. They love fruit, ants, grasshoppers, beetles and other insects, plus spiders and seeds. Pomegranates are also a favorite food, so if you have some in your yard, when they’re in bloom, you’ll likely be fortunate enough to have Cactus Wren visitors.
This bird of the month feature is brought to you by the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society, the local chapter of the National Audubon Society. To check out the wide range of activities it offers, visit the society’s website, newmexico-birds.com/