Cactus wren

I just had about a fifteen minute conversation with this bird. I was sitting on the couch on our back porch, drinking coffee: my daily routine. The bird came up to investigate me, puzzled over me for a minute or so, and then went off to terrorize the finches who’d gathered around the pile of sunflower seeds I put out every morning. This is a cactus wren, Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus, the largest wren in North America and a common bird in the desert. Even if you don’t see them, you hear them:

I’ve stuck to gender-indeterminate pronouns throughout because I’m not expert enough to determine its sex, given that cactus wrens have little sexual dimorphism. Males sing to announce their territory. They make excellent alarm clocks when you’re camping, and they start about 5:45 a.m. in the summer. This one didn’t sing at me, so I have absence of evidence.

As I typed that last sentence, a cactus wren out in the yard sang for about 10 seconds. Not sure it’s the same one.

Cactus wrens are pretty engaging. They’re nervy and unafraid, inquisitive, even aggressive at times. This wren is the only one in the yard who’ll challenge the resident scrub jays over territory. That’s just attitude: the jays are there for the sunflower seed, and the wren doesn’t care for them much. Smaller seeds, insects, and occasional beaksful of fruit make up its diet. Our landlord planted a peach tree some years ago, and there were cactus wrens among the birds that attacked the ripening fruit.

The cactus wren’s song says “home” to me, the way Stellers’ jays’ squawk did when I lived in the Bay Area, and I smile when I notice it. It’s not my favorite wren song, though. The one I like best is that of the cactus wren’s smaller, shyer cousin the canyon wren Catherpes mexicanus:

I hear that song and no matter where I am, it’s the most beautiful place in the world.


  1. ~G~ says

    Thanks for this! I hope to get west again and learn a whole new set of birds. I’ll have to buy the other Sibley’s for the west.

  2. viajera says

    I’m glad you posted the Canyon Wren’s song, too – that’s my second-favorite wren song. I met someone years ago who could do an absolutely spot-on whistled imitation – it was amazing!

    As for my favorite wren song – it’s gotta be the Nightingale Wrens (Microcerculus philomela and M. marginatus). Just imagine standing in a tropical rainforest one misty morning and hearing this. Beautiful!

  3. says

    Just imagine standing in a tropical rainforest one misty morning and hearing this. Beautiful!

    I think I’d start looking around for Richard Dreyfuss holding a plate of mashed potatoes.

  4. rq says

    It certainly looks brave and pugnacious. Same sort of attitude I remember from the blue jays back home. Their voice, though, compared to this wren, leaves something to be desired… Even if it is Richard Dreyfuss with the mashed potatoes.

  5. fastlane says

    I’m an AZ native, and a desert ratt at heart. Seeing the pics, and hearing those calls makes me homesick. Although I love it here in the Pacific Northwet, I will move back to my lovely Sonoran Desert some day.

    When I was going to Pima College, there was a roadrunner who would hop up on the table just about every morning while I was eating breakfast (I biked in, and ate as part of my cool down). He would turn his back to the sun, lift his feathers and start warming himself. I would occasionally give him some crumbs, but he never really ‘begged’ or demanded like some birds. He seems pretty ambivalent to us humans, but I thought he was pretty spectacular, and fun to watch.

  6. Rev. BigDumbChimp says

    I think I’d start looking around for Richard Dreyfuss holding a plate of mashed potatoes.


  7. says

    I grew up in Tucson (fastlane, I went to Pima College too!) and remember desert hikes with these wrens singing. Sure, they aren’t very melodic, but the sound fits in well with the desert. They can be agressive, but they’re not terribly brave: challenge them, and they will retreat to the nearest thorny plant and squawk at you from safety.

  8. Tapetum, Raddled Harridan says

    I remember the cactus wrens from our couple of years in the Tucson area. I can’t speak to favorite wren songs, though, since my heart was long ago captured by the eastern warblers and thrushes. My favorite bird song anywhere, is the veery, just gorgeous.

  9. Larry says

    Totally agree about the canyon wren and its song. Hearing it always reminds me of the dory trip I took years ago through Grand Canyon. We heard that song up and down the canyon and it never failed to brighten my day.

  10. jimvj says

    I first heard the canyon wren’s beautiful tweeeeeeee-twi-twi-twi-twi-twi-twi-twi…. hiking down the Kaibab trail and up the Bright Angel trail of the Grand Canyon. That hike was a self-dare. A few years later I did that hike again, and one of the main motivators was the desire to hear that sound again – in the midst of the fantastic scenery of that canyon.

  11. thebookofdave says

    About the canyon wren: I love the song. Hate the taxonomy. If I had a name like CatHerpes, I’d be pretty elusive too.

  12. procyon says

    Here we have House wrens and Carolina Wrens. The Carolina Wrens always amaze me that such a loud sound comes from such a tiny bird….and so early in the morning.
    I was taken aback by the size of the wrens I saw in Belize. Campylorynchus zonatus, or the Band-Backed Wren. Very similar to their cousins C. brunneicapillus, which I’ve never seen. I didn’t know they made wrens so big. About like a robin.
    On the other hand I was also taken aback by the size of some of the paper wasps down there. A nest of swarming paper wasps about the size of mosquitos.

  13. DLC says

    cactus wrens knocked holes in the 200+ year old saguaro in my front yard, contributing to it’s demise. They seem to be a bit like the woodpecker.

  14. aspidoscelis says

    That Catherpes mexicanus sounds fairly different from those around southern New Mexico to which I am accustomed. Anyone know where it was recorded? I didn’t see a location on youtube. It’s gotten me slightly curious about how much regional variation there is in these critters.

    The Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus in the video above, on the other hand, sounds exactly like those in my area…