The haunts of this interesting little bird are, in the Middle Districts, the margins of rivers at their confluence with the sea, and the adjoining marshes of our Atlantic shores. In such places, the Marsh Wren is found in great numbers, from the beginning of April to the middle of October, when it retires southward, many individuals wintering on the south-western shores of the Floridas, and along the mouths of the Mississippi.
It is a homely little bird, and is seldom noticed, unless by the naturalist, when searching for other species, or by children, who in all countries are fond of birds. It lives entirely amongst the sedges, flags, and other rank plants that cover the margins of the rivers, and the inlets of the sea. Its flight is very low and short, and is performed by a continued flirting of the wings, but without the motions of the tail employed by the Great Carolina Wren. Its song, if song I can call it, is composed of several quickly repeated notes, resembling the grating of a rusty hinge, and is uttered almost continuously during the fore part of the day, the performer standing perched on the top of a tall weed, from which, on the appearance of an intruder, it instantly dives into the thickest part of the herbage, but to which it returns the moment it thinks the danger over, and renews its merry little song.
The males are extremely pugnacious, and chase each other with great animosity, until one or other has been forced to give way. This disposition is the more remarkable, as these birds build their nests quite close to each other. I have seen several dozen of these nests in the course of a morning ramble, in a piece of marsh not exceeding forty or fifty acres.
The nest is nearly of the size and shape of a cocoa-nut, and is formed of dried grasses, entwined in a circular manner, go as to include in its mass several of the stems and leaves of the sedges or other plants, among which it is placed. A small aperture, just large enough to admit the birds, is left, generally on the south-west side of the nest. The interior is composed of small dry grasses, and is nearly of the depth and width of a common bottle. The eggs, which are from six to eight, are of a regular oval form, and deep chocolate colour, and, from their small size, resemble so many beads. The Marsh Wren raises too broods in the season, and on each occasion forms a new nest. In consequence of this practice, the deserted nests of the year, and those remaining since the preceding season, may be seen in the marshes in every direction, there being scarcely a tuft of tall weeds that is not adorned with one of them.
The food of the Marsh Wren principally consists of minute aquatic insects, and equally diminutive mollusca, which it procures by moving along the blades of the grasses, or the twigs of other plants, which it does with great activity. Indeed, so rapid are its movements among the weeds, that one might easily mistake it for a mouse, did he not observe its tail now and then raised over its back, so as to allow the white under-coverts of the former to become conspicuous.
Although I have shot and examined many birds of this species, I have not found any remarkable differences in the plumage of the sexes.
The young birds assume their full colouring so soon after they leave their nest, that by the time the species departs from the Middle Districts on its way southward, it is hardly possible to distinguish them from the old birds.
A nest of this bird with eggs was seen in the salt marshes of Barnstable by Dr. STORER of Boston. At the south-west pass of the Mississippi, I found it very abundant, in full song, and breeding, on the 1st of April, 1837. At the latter place this species sings during the whole of the night.
MARSH WREN, Troglodytes palustris, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. iii. p. 58.
TROGLODYTES PALUSTRIS, Bonap. Syn., p. 93.
MARSH WREN, Troglodytes palustris, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 439.
TROGLODYTES PALUSTRIS, Marsh Wren, Swains. & Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii.p. 319.
MARSH WREN, Troglodytes palustris, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. i. p. 500; vol. v.p. 467.
Bill longish, slightly arched, slender, acute, subtrigonal at the base, compressed towards the tip; upper mandible with the ridge obtuse, the sides convex towards the end, concave at the base, the edges acute and overlapping; under mandible with the sides and back convex. Nostrils oblong, direct, basal, with a cartilaginous lid above, open and bare. Head ovate, eyes rather large, neck of ordinary length, body short and full. Legs of ordinary length; tarsus longer than the middle toe, compressed, covered anteriorly with six scutella, posteriorly with a long plate, forming an acute edge; toes scutellate above, the second and fourth nearly equal, the hind toe almost equal to the middle one, the third and fourth united as far as the second joint; claws rather long, slender, acute, arched, much compressed.
Plumage soft, tufty, slightly glossed. No bristly feathers about the bill. Wings short, broad, rounded: first quill half the length of the second, which is very little shorter than the third and fourth. Tail of ordinary length, much rounded, of twelve rounded feathers.
Bill dark brown above, yellow beneath. Iris hazel. Feet light brown. The general colour of the upper parts is dark brown, the sides of the head deeper, the fore part of the back brownish-black, longitudinally streaked with white, the quills externally margined with lighter brown, the tail barred with dark brown. A white line over the eye, extending down the neck; the sides of the latter mottled with light brown and grey; the under parts of a silvery greyish-white; the abdominal feathers and under tail-coverts tipped with brown.
Length 5 inches, extent of wings 6 1/4; bill along the ridge nearly 7/12, along the gap 3/4; tarsus 5/8, middle toe nearly 3/4.
The female differs very little in external appearance from the male. The black of the back is less deep, and the white lines are less conspicuous; the under parts, also, are of a duller white.