Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Persistence & Perfection: What we can learn from house wrens

We can learn a lot from birds, persistence being one of them.

I love birdhouses and have a half-dozen of them hanging around our property. Some are attached to poles. Some hang from trees. They vary in shape and color. Each year I hope for a cavity nester, such as a chickadee or house finch, to take up residence. Each year house wrens commandeer every single dwelling. Except the bluebird boxes, which the tree swallows occupy.

The house wren is a small, brown bird with a longish tail, generally held at a jaunty, upward angle, and a surprisingly loud and persistent song. His song is not the only notably persistent characteristic of this scrappy little bird.

They are prodigious nest-builders. And they don’t like neighbors.

The male house wren arrives in late spring here in Vermont. I don’t honestly know if we have one highly ambitious house wren that returns each year to occupy our yard, or several. Given how territorial they are, I’m guessing it’s one. But over the few weeks following his (or their) arrival, the yard fills with noisy wren-chatter, and nest building begins.

The house wren’s nest is far different from the neat, skillfully constructed nest of the ruby-throated hummingbird, who cements his tiny, suspended orb with silk from spider webs and then lines it with dandelion fluff. Or the American robin, who gathers grass, string, paper, and strips of cloth and glues them together with mud that his mate carries in her beak. She then lines the nest with soft grass and molds it into a perfect bowl with her body. Even the marsh wren weaves a pretty little oval house suspended between reeds.


The typical nest of the house wren is a pile of twigs. Without the confines of the birdhouse to bind it, the wren’s “nest” would have no integrity at all. I know this because our Mr. Wrenly, as I’ve taken to calling him, attempted for several weeks this summer to build a nest in our newspaper box, probably in case another wren, or a chickadee, should view it as an attractive nest site. Every time my husband removed the accumulated pile of twigs, Mr. Wrenly replaced them. This bird is a paragon of persistence and not all that concerned about perfection. This combination seems to work for him, and I think he's on to something.

One year a pioneering chickadee built a nest in the box outside my office. Then Mr. Wrenly arrived and declared eminent domain. I don’t know if there were chickadee eggs or hatchlings inside when the wren commandeered the box, but he dispatched them. Birds don’t have a sense of “fair play.” They can’t afford to. It’s a short breeding season, their habitat and food supplies are disappearing, cats and invasive species are increasing. It’s tough out there for birds, and getting tougher. House wrens routinely destroy the eggs of competitors, even other house wrens. These birds are the original NIMBYs.

Once his pile of sticks is complete and he’s filled all the neighborhood cavities to confuse predators and prevent neighbors from moving in, the male house wren starts to sing for a mate. And sing. And sing. And sing. And sing… Eventually, hopefully before we go stark, raving mad, one shows up. House wrens are polygynous, so this is unlikely a mate from a precious season. (Some species of wrens are monogamous.)

He's not all that choosy about a mate, but she is. She assesses his architectural prowess and melodic proposal. If she accepts, they consummate the deal. She then adds a bit of hair, feathers, and plant fibers to the base of the pile of twigs and lays eggs.

I can easily keep an eye on the birdhouse outside my office window, and it’s a marvel to watch the parental care, as they fly off in search of food for the hatchlings, delivering a fat caterpillar or the like every ten minutes or so. They grab a fecal sac from the nest and sail off again in a ceaseless cycle all day long. Baby wrens, like their fathers, are very vocal. Their nearly constant chatter reaches a fevered pitch when a parent returns with food, which is, as I’ve said, about every ten minutes all day long.

Once the baby wrens fledge, it is Mrs. Wrenly who keeps a careful eye on their unpracticed flying and feeds them for another few weeks. Because Mr. Wrenly has other matters on his mind: restocking the twig pile and singing for a new mate. His persistence is unhampered by a need for perfection. He's a doer.

There is much to admire about the persistence and single-mindedness of this Napoleonic bird with a spirit so out of proportion to its size. The male’s determination to commandeer every cavity in the yard and his unquenchable need to colonize and procreate, make me feel something of a slacker as my latest writing project goes unheeded, the garden untended, the administrivia of my life unmanaged, and I really should get some exercise...

Maybe I should care less about perfection: the need to craft the perfect sentence, to raise flawless vegetables, to attain Olympic greatness in my workouts. Maybe I will lower the bar a bit, be more persistent. And sing more.