Wrens indulge in dust baths

I thought the heat had finally gotten to me the day I saw small pieces of dirt moving around on my deck. So, I dunked my head under the kitchen faucet and let the cold water run over my warm scalp. Upon my return to the deck, the apparition reappeared, and I truly felt as if I must be going completely insane. It wasn’t until I heard the familiar raspy buzzing of a wren that my hallucination cleared: I was looking at four juvenile house wrens covered in dirt.

The young wrens proceeded to a tray where I had a heaping pile of potting soil ready to use. The wrens hopped into the tray, one by one, single file and began frantically splashing the deeply baked and dehydrated soil. They were taking a dust bath and enjoying it immensely. And all the while, a vigilant adult, sounded off with its buzzy call notes.

This went on for some time: it was as if the birds were addicted to the dust. I watched in amazement, so involved in the bath were these tiny wrens, that they did not notice I had approached them to within a few feet. While the dust flew about, filling the air around me, the adult wren became alarmed at my close proximity to its young. Soon the buzzing increased, prompting the young wrens to suddenly realize I was standing over them, and they hopped out of the tray, single file once again, and flew off with the concerned adult.

I assumed these young belonged to the male wren that arrived in early April. Buzzy notes alerted me to his presence, but soon his loud bursts of song filled each morning. The house wren is but a small bird, not more than five inches long, but it has a big voice. One cannot witness the sight of a house wren singing, beak open wide, throat extended and vibrating, and not wonder how such a small bird can emit such vibrant song. Like most passerines or perching birds, the house wren wastes no time after arriving from the south to begin singing.

It wasn’t long after his arrival that this male was seen moving about the yard with a female. I watched them and their crazy antics for many days while going about my business in the yard. It looked as if the male were showing the female the nesting boxes found throughout my property. Eventually the activity began to center about the nest box in my front yard garden. It was there they settled, and where I watched them closely until the chicks fledged.

Wrens are prone to getting parasites. So, each time they brought food for their young in the box, they removed the chicks' white fecal sacks. Researchers have revealed that when house wrens construct their nests, they often intentionally introduce spider eggs into the boxes; when the spiders hatch, they feed on the mites that parasitize the chicks.

Likewise, a good and thorough dust bath also helps keep the birds clean by reducing excess oils and eliminating skin mites or other parasites. Unfortunately, these tiny brown birds like to completely cover themselves with so much dust that they look like small pieces of animated soil. While I recommend setting up your own dust bath, make sure you look twice when you witness the moving soil, lest you too doubt your sanity.

Robert Tougias is a Colchester based birding author. You can ask him questions at rtougias@snet.net.



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