A diminutive four inches from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail (not much larger than most hummingbirds) but with a lyric song that captures the spirit of nature, the Pacific Wren (Troglodytes pacificus) is Alaska’s only wren.*
Pushed up against a steep bank grown thick with salmonberry bushes and partly draping over the water where I fish for salmon is a certain alder tree that several species of birds find attractive. Golden-crowned Sparrows, Black-capped Chickadees, Yellow Warblers and Wilson’s Warblers are among the regular visitors bringing an added measure of cheer to a morning’s angling.
Not long ago while wading and casting, I heard a new song, complex up and down tinkling as though the sound of a brook had been transposed to birdsong. “That sounds like a wren,” I thought with surprise. I didn’t know that any sort of wren existed in Alaska. I gave my attention to the source of the melody and eventually a furtive, flitting whir of motion came into view as a tiny, mouse-sized bird bounced along the river bank from reed to reed to vine to grass blade, inspecting each for insects I suppose. Dressed in mottled brown, with short wings, a long, slender down-curved bill and stubby tail held high, there was no mistaking the bird for anything but a wren.
But it was so small! Easily the tiniest wren I’d ever encountered, not to mention the smallest species of bird I’ve seen thus far around the environs of Chignik Lake. Most passerines would fit nicely on the palm of one’s hand, and yet the volume of the songs they produce never ceases to astound. The winter wren’s vocals are no exception.
After the morning’s fishing was done and fillets from a brace of salmon were added to our winter provisions, I returned with my camera in an attempt to photograph this little fellow. A variety of other birds came and went, but there was no sign of the wren until suddenly a blur of brown motion gave him away. Yet no sooner did I spot him than he settled into the V where the alder trunk splits and fanning out his tail and wings remained silent and nearly motionless, obscured by leaves and branches. Was he attempting to hide from me? From the Merlin and Shrikes that frequent the area? Or was this behavior rooted in something else?
In his essay Tuckerman Ravine, Henry Thoreau described the song of a bird he could hear in a thicket but was unable to spot as a:
“…twittering flow…a fine corkscrew stream issuing with incessant lisping tinkle from a cork, flowing rapidly, and I said that he had pulled out the spile and left it running.”
The wren eventually moved to more open territory, but remained quiet…
A “spile” is wooden peg used to open or close a wine cask, and it has been reckoned that the trickling, tinkling song Thoreau described was that of a Winter Wren, a close relative of the Pacific Wren. In fact, the species were only scientifically differentiated – based on song, genetics and breeding habits – in 2010.
Elsewhere, naturalist, conservationist and fly-angler John Burroughs described the winter wren and its voice thus:
“Such a dapper, fidgety, gesticulating, bobbing-up-and-down-and-out-and-in little bird, and yet full of such sweet, wild melody!”
…Until finally it was if he could no longer help himself. He just had to sing. And what a song… The fact that a bird with a chest not much bigger than my thumbnail can produce such vocals is astonishing.
I am indebted to the book, Birds of America, (1917 & 1936), edited in chief by T. Gilbert Pearson along with several other editors whose love of birds shines through in their thorough research and beautiful descriptions. The color plates alone make this a volume well worth owning.
*Marsh Wrens have been reported in Alaska as accidentals – meaning very few records of this species have been confirmed.