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Singin’ in the Rocks
by Peter Shelton
Apr 28, 2012 | 1051 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Most mornings, as first light hits the lichen-covered rock outside our living room window, a small, white-chested bird appears and belts out a song. And I mean belts! He (for most assuredly he is the male) stands up there for all the world to see, opens his long slender beak and lets out a series of “trilling whistles,” as one bird book describes them, “prolonged rattles, and shrill ch’tzees.”

(I’ve never been sure what language ornithologists think they’re speaking when they write out these onomatopoeia. They never seem to fit what I’m hearing. Not that I could do a better job. Birds croak and warble and caw, but we humans are terrible at describing the sound in words.)

This “renowned and varied songster” is a rock wren. He’s one of the more advanced passerine birds, the so-called perching birds or songbirds. He has three basic songs, but he has the ability to produce 100 variations on those themes. Some wrens even appear to learn songs from each other.

He and/or his mate (they look almost identical) might have been born here. And now they’re setting up house to lay eggs and start the cycle all over again.

They’ve identified a crevice in a dry-stacked rock wall I built ten years ago. It’s the same crevice year after year, a tiny slit indistinguishable (to my eye) from the thousands of other seams between rocks, but it is the one they choose to wriggle inside, build a nest and rear their young.

If the current pair was born here, they’ve migrated away and come back. The maps show us to be very near the line where rock wrens are year-round residents. North of us (all the way to British Columbia) they fly south for the winter. South of us they tend to stay put. I’m quite sure we do not have rock wrens through the snowy winter. But come April, here they are again, bobbing on the rocks. They bob, or dip, like water ouzels; nobody knows why. And they sing their exuberantly cheery songs.

How do they find this nesting site, the same one used last year and the year before? Do they smell it? Do they have the most finely honed GPS imaginable? Do they just remember?

We see them these days hopping around on the ground picking up twigs and bits of grass. They fly to the entrance and squeeze through to emerge later with nothing in their bills. The books say they also use bits of hair and spider webs and that they underlay their nests with small rocks. Ellen and I have both seen them hopping about with chips of sandstone in their beaks.

The sandstone could be for lining the nest, or it could be for the walkway, or pavement, of flat stones that rock wrens lay down leading to the nest cavity. Again, nobody knows why.

When the babies are hatched, mom and dad take turns flying up with a tasty grub or worm or spider. That’s what the adults eat, too. Sometimes they steal bugs from spiders’ webs. And apparently their diet gives them all the liquid they need, because nobody has ever seen a rock wren drinking water. Even in captivity. We have a big boulder in the front yard with a birdbath-sized hollow that Ellen fills almost daily in the summer. And it’s true, we see finches and sparrows and all manner of other songbirds drinking there, but never the wrens.

The eggs should hatch some time in May, and we’ll start hearing peeps and seeing the occasional fuzzy head sticking out from between the rocks. The parents, who are monogamous one season at a time, squeeze in with food and scramble out with white dime-size pellets in their bills. For a while we were mystified, then we figured out they were on diaper duty; it’s got to be super close, super cramped in there.

By the middle of June the babies are fledging. We’ll see three or four of them, slightly rounder and puffier than the parents, bopping around the lawn near their hole. They’ll stay until mid-summer. A wren family group is called a “chime.”

Which is perfect given their singing ability. The best description I’ve read, oddly enough, was in the dry, old Encyclopedia Britannica: “Highly developed song, musical, variety of bubbling, flutelike to growling notes, harsh chattering calls; some species duet.”
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