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Denizens Of The Desert:
 California Road Runner

 Neotomas, Or Pack Rats, Of The Desert

 Billy Bob-tail, The Hermit Wood Rat

 Spiny Pocket Mice

 Cactus Wren

 Catherpes, The Canon Wren

 Betsy Bounce, The Rock Wren

 Antelope Chipmunk

 Round-tailed Ground Squirrel And Near Relatives

 Eleodes, The Beetle That Stands On His Head

 Read More Articles About: Denizens Of The Desert

Cactus Wren

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

(Heleodytes brunneicapillus)

THE neotomas are not alone in their use of cactuses as a means of protection; insects, mice, turtle doves, ladder-backed woodpeckers, Palmer and Le Conte thrashers, and several other birds find in the beneficent spiny masses or under the roots a hiding haven or a place to rear their young. How it happens that they can dodge the spears and daggers in which all their foes are likely to be caught, I cannot say, for never were skins or bodies more tender than theirs. Does each have a guiding spirit or have they all been dipped in the river Styx?

Among the most clever of these cactus spine-dodgers is the desert cactus wren, which can perch upon the branches or dive into a tree of the awful Bigelow's cholla with perfect impunity. In fact, the cactus wren finds the company of cactuses so congenial that she not only spends a great deal of her time foraging for insects among their branches, but chooses to rear her family in a nest embraced and fortified by their needles. I doubt if there is a member of the wren family that better provides for the protection of her home.

Those who are used to associating the word "wren" with the tiny, sprightly, and vivacious bird of the Eastern States, with its happy, jocund, and joyous song, will find it hard to see how the cactus wren can be called a wren at all, for he is such a different fellow from the bird of their acquaintance. On the whole he is rather a coarse-looking bird with no prepossessing characters as to either form or color. Comparatively, he is rather a good-sized bird, having a length of eight inches from bill to tail-tip. The general color-tone is brownish gray with whitish under-parts prominently speckled with round and linear black spots, especially on the throat and fore part of the breast. The bill, like that of the rock wrens, is slightly bent. The song is an odd one and hardly musical, consisting generally of only a coarse prolonged clatter or low "chut-chut-chut." It is especially noticeable in the spring during the nesting season. The males are then unusually quarrelsome, hot-tempered, irascible fellows, pursuing one another in flight over long distances, scolding and giving vent to their peppery tempers and jealousies in shrill, angry, jaylike notes of warning.

These giant wrens are with us all the year, but are seldom heard except during the breeding season. They seem to be less plentiful in winter; food being then scarce they scatter out more. The male and the female stay matched throughout the year and are generally found foraging together. In California they are common in all the desert country as far north as the upper end of Owen's Valley, and on the coast they are found from San Diego to Ventura County. The cactus wrens are also common residents of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and southern Utah.

The nest presents a very interesting piece of bird architecture. Shaped like a large, long, globular purse, it is laid horizontally (the angle is really slightly less than 45°) between the forks and branches of a cactus, and from it there runs outward a singular covered passage or tunnel, varying from four to twelve inches in length. It is composed of fine grasses and coarser sticks and is lined with feathers, the whole often topped off with a loose stack of branchlets from certain species of buckwheats growing in the region. I find that the cactus wrens are pretty good botanists and are able to select with remarkable exactness certain species of plants which they desire. In the examination of a great number of nests the past spring in the Colorado Desert of California, I found the lower portion of all the nests consisting of certain plants only, the kind seldom varying from nest to nest, and the top stack in every case made from one certain species of reddish-stemmed buckwheat (Eriogonum), and this, though there are growing abundantly in the region several species which might be easily confused. But the cactus wren, bird botanist, never makes a mistake.

There is no need to advertise for information to find out where the cactus wrens have built their nests; for go anywhere you will, you will come upon them among the patches of shrubby cactuses and thorny palo verde trees. And you will find nests in abundance and not judge that the cactus wren population is waning. In a walk of about a mile over a cactus-strewn, rocky detritus fan emerging from one of the desert caņons, I once counted thirty nests.

Last spring a nest was made within twenty feet of my door and I had a chance to watch closely the rearing of the young. Incubation began after four salmon-dotted, white eggs had been laid in the nest. When once hatched the baby birds, like all youngsters, grew amazingly fast and their appetites kept the mother constantly afield in search of insects. It seemed only a few days from the time I first saw the tiny, upstretched, gaping mouths until the nest was overflowing with squirming almost full-grown birds. The passageway or vestibule to this nest was very short - not over four inches long - and it was always a wonder to me that none of the restless birdlings became impaled on the frightful cactus needles bristling like bayonets about the edge of the nest. After making inquiry for a number of years, I can find only one instance where young were seen spitted on the thorns outside.

The wrens are peculiar among birds in that among many species there is the habit of building during the spring or the autumn the so-called "spare nests" or "roosting-nests" which are used during the greater part of the year for sleeping-quarters by the adult birds. Unlike the nests made for rearing the young, these nests are ordinarily small, compact, scantily lined, and built with much less care. In some cases, however, the old brooding-nests are used after being relined and generally reconstructed. During the past autumn I noticed that a cock wren was roosting in a spare nest built in a palo verde tree below my house. During the winter months he quite regularly went to roost at about 4.30 o'clock. On one particular evening in January an incident took place at the nest which was so ludicrous that it needs to be given record.

The wren had nicely settled himself in the nest for the night when a curious, impudent, meddlesome shrike, or butcher bird, flew into the tree, and, bent on plunder, poked his beak into the private residence of the wren. Not pleased with such intrusions, the waspish-tempered wren flew into a rage, and before the shrike was able to realize his precarious situation he was seized by the foot with a bill-grip as strong as a vise. The captive bird screamed and shrieked, fluttered and pulled, trying to extricate himself from the grip of the wren, who seemed determined never to let go. "You will poke your head into places you have no business to, will you?" I could fancy the wren saying. " I will give you a lesson that will last you awhile."

The shrike did finally get away, no doubt glad to have escaped without a toe missing. I feel certain that his pugnacious and curious nature did not lead him to visit those quarters again soon.

The nest of the cactus wren seems unusually well protected from the ravages of enemies common to birds, yet do not think for a moment that these birds are wholly immune from attack. Snakes, those constant terrors of the bird world, even risk climbing up through the ramified and prickly branches of the cholla to get the eggs and young. Since several species of smaller rodents, such as wild mice, wood rats, and antelope chipmunks are also able to climb with comparative ease into the cactuses, it is really a question whether or not the situation of the nest is any real protection to other than avian enemies.

Not long ago an artist friend of mine, out with his easel and colors, upon hearing a strange bird call, had his attention drawn to a cactus wren which was hovering in peculiar flight above a large cholla. Interested in the unusual actions of the bird, he stepped nearer to observe it, and as he did so he noticed a large red racer coiled among the branches of the cactus, cruelly devouring the nestful of birdlings. As he rushed up to the nest, the snake became frightened and dropped from the shrub, leaving the last little, half-dead bird on the edge of the nest, its mute and bloody remains testifying to the horrible tragedy that had taken place in the once happy bird home.

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