By Dan Reinking

The nine wren species of North America are quite variable in size, plumage, song, and habitat. The smallest, the Winter Wren at four inches long, is less than half the size of the Cactus Wren, our largest species. Some species range across the continent, while others occur only in the east or only in the west. Some favor marshy areas, while others require rocky canyons. Most species are characterized by upright cocked tails, giving wrens a "perky" appearance. Let's look at three species that are fairly widespread and often occur in suburban gardens and rural woodland edges, the House Wren, the Bewick's Wren, and the Carolina Wren.

The species with the broadest range across North America is the familiar House Wren, a frequent occupier of nest boxes placed in yards and gardens. It breeds across southernmost Canada and most of the U.S. except the for the southeast. Smallest of the three species, its overall appearance is brown, like that of most wrens, with the brown found not only on the upperparts but also on the black-barred lower belly. The most obvious difference between House Wrens and the other two species is the lack of a bold white eye stripe in this species. The House Wren's bubbly song also helps clinch the identification, even if the bird is hidden in a brushy tangle.

House wren

Intermediate in size between the other two species, Bewick's Wrens occur primarily in the western U.S.; eastern populations have declined dramatically over recent decades. Noticeable plumage variation occurs by subspecies, with eastern populations being reddish brown above, while western birds have grayer upperparts. A bold white stripe through the eye makes separating Bewick's Wrens from House Wren's a snap, as does the lack of black barring on the lower belly. The breast of the Bewick's Wren is whiter than the pale buff breast of House Wren. The song, a mixed buzzy warble, also sets it apart.

Bewick's wren - Photo by
Bill Horn

The third species, the Carolina Wren, is the largest, though size is difficult to judge when looking at a lone bird without another species present for comparison. It is a resident bird of the southeastern U.S., extending north to southern New York and central Iowa, and west to western Oklahoma and Texas. In years following mild winters, it extends its range farther north than this, buts its intolerance for brutal winter weather eventually means a readjustment of range farther to the south. In appearance it is a rich, rusty brown above, and a warm, buffy brownish below from breast to lower belly. It lacks barring on the lower belly, but possesses a bold and lengthy white eye line. Its song is often described phonetically as "teakettle teakettle teakettle", or, by foodies, as "cheeseburger cheeseburger cheeseburger," and is clearly different from songs of the other two species.

Carolina wren - Photo by
Bill Horn

If you live in an open woodland or have brushy cover in your yard, you have a good chance of finding one or more of these three species nearby. Adding a nest box or two may improve your chances of seeing one a regular basis during the summer months.


Dan Reinking grew up birding in northwest Iowa after a December visit by his uncle, an active birder, left him with a passion for birds. He has since turned bird study into an occupation, having conducted or participated in research in South Dakota, Minnesota, California, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Venezuela. Employed with the George M. Sutton Avian Research Center in Oklahoma since 1992, he recently coordinated the Oklahoma Breeding Bird Atlas Project. He is also a member of the Oklahoma Bird Records Committee and president of the Oklahoma Ornithological Society.