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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.

Keys to identification Help

Wrens
Wrens
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The Cactus Wren is a large chunky wren with a long heavy bill, a long, rounded tail, and short, rounded wings. The Cactus Wren is the largest wren in the United States and is similar in size to a Spotted Towhee.

  • Color Pattern

    The Cactus Wren is a speckled brown bird with bright white eyebrows that extend from the bill, across and above their red eyes, to the sides of the neck. They have pale cinnamon sides and a white chest with dark speckles. The back is brown with heavy white streaks, and the tail is barred white and black—especially noticeable from below. Males and females look alike, but juveniles are slightly paler and have a brown eye.

  • Behavior

    Unlike other wrens that typically hide in vegetation, the Cactus Wren seems to have no fear. They perch atop cacti and other shrubs to announce their presence and forage out in the open. They do not cock their tails over their back the way other wrens do. Instead they fan their tail feathers, flashing white tail tips.

  • Habitat

    Cactus Wrens live in deserts, arid foothills, coastal sage scrub, and urban areas throughout the Southwestern deserts, especially in areas with thorny shrubs, cholla, and prickly pear.

Range Map Help

Cactus Wren Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Cactus Wren

    Adult
    • Large chunky wren with a long heavy bill
    • Long, rounded tail
    • Bright white eyebrow
    • Pale cinnamon sides
    • Dark speckles on chest
    • Barred black-and-white tail
    • © Carlos Escamilla, Botines, Texas, April 2011
  • Adult

    Cactus Wren

    Adult
    • Large chunky wren with long heavy bill
    • White eyebrow
    • Barred black-and-white tail
    • Speckles on belly
    • © Joan Gellatly, Tucson, Arizona, December 2012
  • Adult

    Cactus Wren

    Adult
    • Large chunky wren with a long heavy bill
    • Long, black-and-white barred tail
    • Cinnamon sides
    • Heavily streaked back and speckled front
    • © Lois Manowitz, Tucson, Arizona, November 2009
  • Adult

    Cactus Wren

    Adult
    • Large chunky wren with a large heavy bill
    • Bold white eyebrow
    • Cinnamon sides
    • Streaked back
    • © Ned Harris, Tucson, Arizona, October 2009

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Sage Thrasher

    Adult
    • More slender than Cactus Wren
    • Shorter bill
    • Less heavily barred upperparts
    • No white eyebrow
    • © Tim Lenz, Millers, Nevada, September 2009
  • Adult

    Rock Wren

    Adult
    • Much smaller than Cactus Wren with shorter tail
    • Less heavily spotted and barred
    • Faint eyebrow stripe
    • © hawk person, Coyote Lake, California, December 2014
  • Adult

    Bewick's Wren

    Adult
    • Smaller than Cactus Wren
    • Less strongly marked than Cactus Wren
    • Clean gray-white belly
    • Solid brown back
    • © Chris Orr, Los Angeles County Arboretum, California, March 2016
  • Adult

    Canyon Wren

    Adult
    • Smaller than Cactus Wren
    • Clean white throat
    • Solid russet belly
    • © hawk person, Coyote Lake, California, October 2014

Similar Species

Sage Thrashers are more slender than Cactus Wrens, with a shorter bill. They are also plainer and more gray-brown, lacking the heavily barred upperparts and strong white eyebrow of a Cactus Wren. Other wren species tend to lack the Cactus Wren's heavy streaking and spotting and are about half the size of a Cactus Wren. Rock Wrens are much smaller, with a shorter tail, fainter eyebrow stripe, and less heavy spotting and barring. Rock Wrens also tend to be in rockier habitats while Cactus Wrens tend to be in cactus filled areas. Bewick’s Wren is less strongly marked than Cactus Wren, with a clean gray-white belly and solid brown back. Canyon Wrens are smaller than Cactus Wrens as well, with a clean white throat and solid russet belly. Canyon Wrens also tend to be in rockier canyons than Cactus Wrens.

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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