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Cactus Wren Life History


Habitat DesertsCactus Wrens live in scrubby areas in the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mojave Deserts as well as in coastal sage scrub in California and thorn-scrub areas in Tamaulipas, Mexico. They inhabit areas with cholla, saguaro, and prickly-pear cacti, catclaw acacia, mesquite, whitethorn, desert willow, yucca, palo verde, and other desert shrubs. Small patches of prickly-pear and cholla cacti mixed with short sagebrush and buckwheat are great spots for Cactus Wrens in coastal California and northwestern Baja California, Mexico. Back to top


Food InsectsCactus Wrens eat mostly spiders and insects such as beetles, ants, wasps, grasshoppers, and butterflies. They find these while hopping on the ground and turning over leaves or by searching bushes and tree bark. Cactus Wrens also eat fruit, particularly cactus fruits. They get the majority of their water from the food they eat and rarely drink free-standing water. Back to top


Nest Placement

Nest ShrubThe female initiates nest building, but after she selects the spot, the male jumps in to help out. They build the nest 3–10 feet above the ground in a cholla, palo verde, acacia, mesquite, or other desert vegetation where the nest is surrounded by thorns.

Nest Description

Male and female Cactus Wrens build large football-shaped nests with tunnel-shaped entrances. The pair amasses coarse grass and plant fibers to create a nest about 7 inches in diameter and 12 inches long, which weighs in at 6 ounces. The entrance is very small—large enough for the parents to squeeze in, but small enough to keep most potential predators out—and often necessitates a "doorstep" or perch near the entranceway, as the narrow entry may even be too small for a flying bird to easily gain entrance. Once inside, the passageway to the nest widens. The birds line the inside of the nest with feathers. The pair builds the nest in 1–6 days, but most of the construction takes place within the first 3 hours of each morning.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-7 eggs
Number of Broods:1-3 broods
Egg Length:0.8-1.0 in (2-2.6 cm)
Egg Width:0.6-0.7 in (1.5-1.8 cm)
Incubation Period:16-17 days
Nestling Period:17-23 days
Egg Description:Salmon pink to buff with reddish brown spots.
Condition at Hatching:Mostly naked with patches of fluffy white down along spine, wing edges, and head. Eyes closed.
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Behavior Ground ForagerCactus Wrens are inquisitive wrens that make their presence well known, singing atop tall shrubs and hopping around on the ground in the open. Cactus Wrens are active all hours of the day and spend most of their time foraging in open areas, but they move into shady areas to forage when temperatures increase. Unlike most birds, they use their nests year-round, not just for breeding. After sunset they head back to their nests for the night. They are not particularly strong fliers and generally make jerky flights alternating between rapid wingbeats and short glides. Adults pair up for the breeding by first uttering a growling sound with their wings and tail spread before they gently peck each other. In extreme droughts some pairs may forgo breeding, but in normal conditions, Cactus Wrens breed every year and sometimes raise 3 broods in a season. They defend their territories year-round. When another bird enters their territory, they spread their tails, fluff up their feathers, scold, and even give chase. If they discover a predator such as a snake near their nest they will scold and mob the predator. Snakes, domestic cats, hawks, and Greater Roadrunners prey on adults, eggs, and nestlings. Back to top


Conservation Common Bird in Steep DeclineCactus Wren populations declined by about 1.6% per year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 55% over that period, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 7 million, with 43% in the U.S. and 57% in Mexico. The species rates a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and is a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species. Cactus Wren is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. Urban and agricultural expansion threaten Cactus Wren habitat especially when cacti and desert shrubs are lost altogether. Back to top

Backyard Tips

Cactus Wrens sometimes visit sunflower or suet feeders. Head over to Project FeederWatch to learn more about what types of feeders to use as well as what types of food are best.

Cactus Wrens are fairly adaptable birds and will visit or maybe even nest in your yard if you have a few cactus or other desert plants. Xeriscaping is great way to provide habitat for desert birds as well as making your yard look beautiful. Habitat Network has great information to help you create bird friendly habitat.

Bird-friendly Winter Gardens, Birdsleuth, 2016.

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Hamilton, Robert A., Glenn A. Proudfoot, Dawn A. Sherry and Steven L. Johnson. (2011). Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. (2016). The State of North America's Birds 2016. Environment and Climate Change Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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