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Cactus Wren

Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: TROGLODYTIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

No bird exemplifies Southwestern deserts better than the noisy Cactus Wren. At all hours of the day they utter a raw scratchy noise that sounds like they are trying to start a car. Cactus Wrens are always up to something, whether hopping around on the ground, fanning their tails, scolding their neighbors, or singing from the tops of cacti. They build nests the size and shape of footballs which they use during the breeding and nonbreeding season. Cactus Wrens are true desert dwellers; they can survive without needing to drink freestanding water.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
7.1–8.7 in
18–22 cm
Wingspan
11 in
28 cm
Weight
1.1–1.7 oz
32–47 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Bewick’s Wren, smaller than a Northern Mockingbird.
Other Names
  • Troglodyte des cactus (French)
  • Matraca del desierto (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Most birds only build nests during the breeding season and use them just for rearing their young, but male and female Cactus Wrens build multiple nests and use them as roosting sites even during the nonbreeding season.
  • Juvenile Cactus Wrens start building nests early in life. They imitate their parents by picking up nesting material as soon as 12 days after leaving the nest, but they don’t actually build their own nest until they’ve been out of the nest for about 63 days.
  • Adults often feed their nestlings grasshoppers, being careful to pluck off the wings before stuffing the insect into the chicks' mouths. The parents need to pluck a lot of grasshopper wings; one nestling needs to eat at least 14 grasshoppers a day to meet its nutritional requirements.
  • The Cactus Wren is an active mobber of nest predators. A pair was observed attacking a Yuma antelope squirrel so vigorously that the squirrel became impaled on the thorns of a cactus. The wrens continued to peck the squirrel until it was knocked to the ground where it escaped.
  • The Cactus Wren destroys the nests of other bird species, pecking or removing their eggs, and can lower the breeding density of Verdins (another desert bird).
  • Cold desert nights may have more of an impact on the success of Cactus Wren breeding than extremely hot daytime temperature.
  • Cactus Wrens rarely drink water. Instead they get all their liquids from juicy insects and fruit.
  • Before heading back to the nest for the night, many Cactus Wrens take a dust bath. Several species also take dust baths to help reduce feather parasites and keep feathers looking good.
  • The Cactus Wren is the state bird of Arizona.
  • The oldest recorded Cactus Wren was a male, and at least 8 years, 1 month old when it was identified in California by a leg band in 2013. It had been banded in the same state in 2006.

Habitat


Deserts

Cactus 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.

Food


Insects

Cactus 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.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–7 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
0.8–1 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.
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 around 3.5 inches in diameter—large enough for the parents to squeeze in but small enough to keep most potential predators out. They 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.

Nest Placement

Shrub

The 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.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Cactus 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.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Cactus 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.

Credits

Range Map Help

Cactus Wren Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident (nonmigratory).

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.

Find This Bird

The key to finding a Cactus Wren is to look for cholla or prickly-pear cacti whether in the desert or in an urban or suburban park. You know you've found the right place when you see football-shaped clumps of vegetation stuck in a cactus—these are Cactus Wren nests and a sure sign the birds are around. Listen for their call—a rusty old car that just won’t start—and look for them on the tops of cholla cactus, prickly-pear cactus, yuccas, or mesquite shrubs. Cactus Wrens are not shy, so with enough time in their habitat you will no doubt come across one or two chasing each other around.

Get Involved

Count the number of Cactus Wrens you see in your yard in February during the Great Backyard Bird Count.

If you have feeders in your yard, join Project FeederWatch and tell us what you are seeing at your feeders.

You Might Also Like

Read about landscaping with desert cacti, xeriscaping, and more at Habitat Network.

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