Learning with Cactus Wrens


I have developed a relationship with the neighborhood cactus wrens. They forced the issue. So now it’s like this: I head out on my dawn walk, make it across the street, to a patchy line of cancer trees (a type of sumac), by a semi-haunted house, and there are three cactus wrens in one of the trees, about head height, buzzing and rasping, hopping in place. Eye to eye. Their big dark eyes. I think, maybe they have a nest nearby. I should go. One flies straight at me, right for my head, wings swiping & waffling, and I do what I’ve always done since I was a zookeeper: avert eyes, lower head. The cactus wren zips past my head, maybe three feet from me, then all the way around me, chuckling all the way. Not exactly divebombing. Two of them, back in the tree. They’re hard for me to tell apart. They buzz, rasp, then there is this occasional melodic almost-chirp I can’t duplicate. But I can buzz and rasp, too. The two keep close, talking, laughing, striking poses, then they go in to elaborate fanning out of their tail feathers, then their wing feathers, to a complicated foot beat. I see the white tipped tail feathers. They posture, take a stance. I can’t help but think they’re in love. The third is about ten feet away sitting in another tree by themself, rasping…sullenly. I toss out a handful of freeze-dried mealworms and back away.

Maybe they were mating and I interrupted. Maybe there was a nest I couldn’t see. Maybe they were greeting me, good morning – where’s the maggots?

Cactus wrens tend to mate for life. Very social birds, threesomes are common. Conjecture has it that the third bird is often an immature bird, of a late clutch, still hanging with the parental units. Others have suggested the third bird is an auntie. Or even widowed birds. The third is called the unicorn.

Later, my love comes in from working at the back porch picnic table. I happen to be washing dishes, glancing out the window above the sink that looks on to the porch. As soon as she’s in, three cactus wrens immediately descend, take over the porch, one on the railing, two on the picnic table. They methodically go through everything, check everything, which means long down-curved beaks probing papers, fork, plate – there must be crumbs! A cactus wren comes on the dreaded iphone, touches the phone’s screen with its beak. Little careful jabs. Butt calls are bad enough: what to do when a wren calls?

Ever since I started this walking routine, usually near dawn, I’ve come to see my neighbors a lot more. I know where the coyote den is. I know the javelina trails. I know where the whitethorn bloom. I know where two haunted houses are. There are four feral cats I see on my walk – regularly. And the four cats – a black one, a long haired spooky gray one, a peachy one, and a brown one, have allowed me to see the way they break up the neighborhood, my morning walk, .7 miles, cuts through. Each kitty has its own territory. I see how all the critters, of course, obviously, do the same. There seem to be three families of cactus wren along my route. Now any birder worth his bino’s knows that the only birds you see are the birds that let you see them. Therefore, it follows they have been watching me, too, learning my routine, my territory. My maggots. Life surveils. Life is in constant surveillance of other life. Life watches life. I see them. They see me. They see us.


Here I come, out the front door, after 5 PM, for my afternoon stretch, a little walk to the corner and back, to unclench the bod. Aha! Right in front of me, by our water meter, a cactus wren on the ground pummeling something. Really going at it with that dull black, thick, down curved bill – hefty. I get too close and the cactus wren flutters away, then lights nearby in a shrubbery to keep an eye on its prize.

It’s a mouse. Beaten to pulp. Pulverized. Flattened. It may be too big for the cactus wren to swallow whole. A slight tear in the fur, and I imagine the cactus wren can tongue it out. Cactus wrens are tough desert birds – they have to be to survive. If another family of cactus wrens builds a nest too close, they will intervene – peck eggs, tear up nests.

The cactus wren’s color palette bares many browns. Field guides have the official details. What I see is rich, milk chocolate brown cap. Some note a red tinge, but I haven’t. Fabulous white eyebrows to the nape. The chest bib is dark brown, almost a hickory brown or umber, with streaks of white. Younger birds’ bibs have more streaks. White chin. Pale belly with tan streaks, like tawny peanut. Then the flanks, a cinnamon buff. Maybe caramel. A quick glance at a cactus wren scooting by, in air or on land, and first impression may conclude this is a creamy latte, medium-sized bird with dark feathers. Legs are usually dirty brown. Adults have red eyes, but not the blood red of silky flycatchers’ eyes. Birders pronounce the cactus wren a handsome bird – such an odd, masculine descriptor. Is handsome code for drab? Nobody wants to embarrass birds without tropical colors?

It all started for me – my cactus wren illumination, two summers ago. In May, 2020, I put aside my cane and committed myself to a good walk every day. So I had that going on. A month later, one morning, I happened to be doing the dishes, glancing out the window above the sink that looked onto the porch and its picnic table. My love had had her breakfast out there and had come in. She had been messing with an old table cloth she thought might fit the picnic table. She left a piled up mound of table cloth, and dish and fork. Cactus wrens whoosh in to investigate. Straight to the dish and fork. They took turns examining her cutlery. Not many crumbs –

A threesome, they hopped about the table, then one settled on the porch rail. Another cactus wren burrowed into and under the heaped up table cloth and disappeared. Seconds later, the cactus wren popped out at the opposite end of the table cloth. This startled the other cactus wrens and they squawked and fluttered about, then returned to the table top. The same cactus wren ducked back under the table cloth. Crumbs in there? Peanut butter stains? Pop! Again, in an excited puff of feathers, the cactus wren reappeared. This time the others stayed, hopping, chuckling. The cactus wren went back under the table cloth –

The cactus wrens were playing peek-a-boo.

Animal play, animal laughter – we take for granted. We know how much our cats and dogs love to play. We know their smiles. People who live with parrots grow tightly bonded and know how important play and laughter are for them. But peek-a-boo? It’s not mentioned in the field guides.

I was inoculated. Prepped for bird games. And since then, I have witnessed – no, that’s not the right word: I have begun to share cactus wrens’ lives and antics. The threesome that run the backyard also visit the front yard, where ever I put out mealworms. And, recently, in an elation of worms and birds, with many species – curve billed thrashers, mockingbirds, finches, sparrows, I saw a cactus wren grab a white object, about an inch square, from the ground. Was this the peek-a-boo wren? This guy waved this white thing about, running, hopping. Showing off? Clowning around? Then the cactus wren fluttered up to a mesquite branch and stuck the white thing in the scaley bark. I went to see what it was. It was a tiny square of white onion, outer paper peel, that must have gotten away from the garbage can. The cactus wren, I assumed the same one, used the white onion flag again the next day, waving it about to the other birds. After that, I never saw the flag again.

Semaphore —

One thought on “WRENDITION

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