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  • House Wren
  • Joanna Brichetto (bio)

On a bird hike last spring, our group of just-met walkers paused to stare at an eastern bluebird atop his box.

"All my bluebird boxes are stuffed with house wren nests. Tiny twigs from floor to roof," I mention to the man in profile beside me.

"Ah," he drawls, "the house wren."

"Yeah, that song gets on my nerves. It drives me nuts."

Binoculars descend. Had I seen those rheumy, humorless eyes I would not have initiated this chitchat.

"Charmin' bird," he monotones, clipping the "g" because he is old Nashville. "Charmin' song."

After that, I am silent as the sticks in my bluebird boxes.

A house wren is tiny, adorable—nearly as cartoony-cute as the Carolina wren, but plainer and slimmer. The Carolina's song is infinitely variable, whereas the house wren's is infinitely the same. Audubon Field Guide is not wrong to describe the house wren's song as "gurgling, bubbling, exuberant … first rising then falling." Cornell Lab of Ornithology says "effervescent," "rush-and-jumble." All true. The melody is rather sweet until you hear it all damn day, every damn day, so that you wonder if you are being tormented with a hidden auto-loop recording. The sequence is mechanical, downright diabolical in its monotony, and it varies only in location—from which bluebird box?—because it has usurped them all.

A male house wren is a real estate bully: he claims all cavities and stages them each the same way and for the same reason: to impress a potential [End Page 123] mate. Each box is plugged floor to hole with twigs and only twigs: no moss, no cedar bark, no grass, no leaves. Meanwhile, when Carolinas or chickadees or titmice or bluebirds house hunt, there is no room. The early bird got the house—all the houses.

Every spring, I make several trips per day around the yard to clear out all but one house, hoping to keep the properties on the market for other species. But even if this works, it may not be safe for birds to settle in too close to house wrens. They are known to give neighbors the boot and to destroy eggs and kill nestlings. Of course, other species do this, too. Right now, starlings are evicting my red-bellied woodpeckers from their own fresh cavity in the sugar maple. Birds look out for number one.

The lazier way to free up houses is to wait until the house wren's scheme works and a mate accepts. Then, I can excavate rejected boxes in time for late broods of chickadees or titmice.

But the song. I can do nothing about the song. My heart drops to my ankles when I hear it the first time each spring. It's an earworm. Well, no, it isn't. A worm insinuates, and the house wren song is too short for insinuation. True earworms can shift to the fore mid-verse, but the house wren's song is more direct: a burst of descant about three seconds long that defies phonetic transcription. Something like Scrit-scrit-scrit-tsak-tsak-tsak-triiiiiiiill-tskeettee-tee-tee-tee-tee-oh.

Descants are ornaments to a foil of proper melody, but this ornament is a solo. It's a frippery fillip of a gewgaw, like a decorative lozenge on a picture frame but without the picture or the frame. And it happens nine to eleven times per minute.


None of my local birding friends are vexed by the house wren song. The internet doesn't seem to mind, either. I suspect my problem is my own: I can't tune out certain sounds. Misophonia, or Selective Sound Sensitivity Syndrome, or Annoying Noises Send Me into a Rage is what I have. The most common trigger cited by people with this condition is the sound of other people chewing. Amen to that. I max the stove hood fan during family dinner just for the white noise. On a related and worse note, I once failed a graduate exam because the man next to me hocked...