The extent of the migratory movements of this diminutive bird, is certainly the most remarkable fact connected with its history. At the approach of winter it leaves its northern retreats, perhaps in Labrador or Newfoundland, crosses the inlets of the Gulf of St. Lawrence on tiny concave wings, and betakes itself to warmer regions, where it remains until the beginning of spring. Playfully and with alacrity it performs the task, hopping from one stump or fallen log to another, flitting from twig to twig, from bush to bush, here and there flying a few yards; feeding, singing, and bustling on, as if quite careless as to time or distance. It has reached the shore of some broad stream, and here a person ignorant of its habits might suppose it would be stopped; but no, it spreads its wings, and glides over like a meteor.
I have found the Winter Wren in the lower parts of Louisiana, and in the Floridas, in December and January, but never saw one there after the end of the latter month. Their stay in those parts rarely exceeds three months; two more are employed in forming a nest and rearing their broods; and as they leave Labrador by the middle of August at the latest, they probably spend more than half of the year in travelling. It would be interesting to know whether those which breed along the Columbia river, near the Pacific Ocean, visit the shores of our Atlantic States. My friend THOMAS NUTTALL informs me that he occasionally saw the Winter Wren feeding its young in the woods, along the north-west coast.
At Eastport, in Maine, when on my way to Labrador, I found this species in full song, and extremely abundant, although the air was chill, and icicles hung from every rock, it being then the 9th of May. On the 11th of June, I found it equally plentiful in the Magdeleine Islands, and wondered how it could have made its way there, but was assured by the inhabitants that none were ever seen in winter. On the 20th of July, I met with it at Labrador, and again asked myself, how it could possibly have reached those remote and rugged shores? Was it by following the course of the St. Lawrence, or by flying from one island to another across the Gulf? I have seen it in almost every State of the Union, but only twice found it breeding there, once near the Mohawk river in New York, and again in the Great Pine Swamp in Pennsylvania. It breeds abundantly in Maine, and probably in Massachusetts, but few spend the winter even in the latter State.
The song of the Winter Wren excels that of any other bird of its size with which I am acquainted. It is truly musical, full of cadence, energetic, and melodious; its very continuance is surprising, and dull indeed must be the ear that thrills not on hearing it. When emitted, as it often is, from the dark depths of the unwholesome swamp, it operates so powerfully on the mind, that it by contrast inspires a feeling of wonder and delight, and on such occasions has usually impressed me with a sense of the goodness of the Almighty Creator, who has rendered every spot of earth in some way subservient to the welfare of his creatures.
Once when travelling through a portion of the most gloomy part of a thick and tangled wood, in the Great Pine Forest, not far from Mauch Chunk in Pennsylvania, at a time when I was intent on guarding myself against the venomous reptiles which I expected to encounter, the sweet song of this Wren came suddenly on my ear, and with so cheering an effect, that I instantly lost all apprehension of danger, and pressed forward through the rank briars and stiff laurels, in pursuit of the bird, which I hoped was not far from its nest. But he, as if bent on puzzling me, rambled here and there among the thickest bushes with uncommon cunning, now singing in one spot not far distant, and presently in another in a different direction. After much exertion and considerable fatigue, I at last saw it alight on the side of a large tree, close to the roots, and heard it warble a few notes, which I thought exceeded any it had previously uttered. Suddenly another Wren appeared by its side, but darted off in a moment, and the bird itself which I had followed disappeared. I soon reached the spot, without having for an instant removed my eyes from it, and observed a protuberance covered with moss and lichens, resembling those excrescences which are often seen on our forest trees, with this difference, that the aperture was perfectly rounded, clean, and quite smooth. I put a finer into it, and felt the pecking of a bird's bill, while a querulous cry was emitted. In a word, I had, the first time in my life, found the nest of our Winter Wren. Having gently forced the tenant from his premises, I drew out the eggs with a sort of scoop which I formed. I expected to find them numerous, but there were not more than six, and the same number I afterwards found in the only other nest of this species ever discovered by me. The little bird called upon its mate, and their united clamour induced me to determine upon leaving their treasures with them; but just as I was about going off, it struck me that I ought to take a description of the nest, as I might not again have such an opportunity. I hope, reader, you will believe, that when I resolved to sacrifice this nest, it was quite as much on your account as my own. Externally it measured seven inches in length, four and a half in breadth; the thickness of its walls, composed of moss and lichen, was nearly two inches; and thus it presented internally the appearance of a narrow bag, the wall, however, being reduced to a few lines where it was in contact with the bark of the tree. The lower half of the cavity was compactly lined with the fur of the American Hare, and in the bottom or bed of the nest there lay over this about half a dozen of the large downy abdominal feathers of our Common Grouse, Tetrao Umbellus. The eggs were of a delicate blush-colour, somewhat resembling the paler leaves of a partially decayed rose, and marked with dots of reddish-brown, more numerous towards the larger end.
The nest which I found near the Mohawk was discovered by mere accident. One day in the beginning of June, and about noon, feeling fatigued, I sat down on a rock overhanging the water, where, while resting, I might have the pleasure of watching the motions of some fishes in sight. The damp of the place produced a sudden chillness, and caused me to sneeze aloud, when from beneath my feet there flew off a Winter Wren. The nest, which I soon found, was attached to the lower parts of the rock, and presented the same form and structure as that already described; but it was smaller, the eggs, six in number, contained young far advanced.
The motions of this interesting bird are performed with great rapidity and decision. While searching for food it hops, creeps, and leaps about from one spot to another, as if it derived pleasure from exercise. At each movement it bends its breast downward, so as almost to touch the object on which it stands, and by a sudden extension of its strong feet, aided by the action of its half drooping concave wings, jerks itself forward, keeping its tail elevated all the while. Now through a hollow log it passes like a mouse, now it clings to the surface in various attitudes, suddenly disappears, but presently shews itself by your side; at times it chirrups in a querulous rolling tone, then emits single clear sharp chirps resembling the syllables tshick, tshick, and again remains silent for a time. It will now and then reach the upper branches of a small tree or a bush, by hopping and leaping from twig to twig; in the course of this transit it will present its opposite sides to you a score of times; and when at length it has gained the summit, it will salute you with its delicate melody, and then dash headlong and be out of sight in a moment. This is almost constantly observed during the spring season, when more than ever its alertness is displayed. On all such occasions, however, whilst in the act of singing, its tail is seen to be depressed. In winter, when it takes possession of the wood-pile, close to the husbandman's dwelling, it will challenge the cat in querulous tones, and peeping out here and there, as it frisks in security, wear out Grimalkin's patience.
The food of the Winter Wren consists chiefly of spiders, caterpillars, and small moths, as well as larvae. Towards autumn it eats small juicy berries.
Having lately spent a winter at Charleston, in South Carolina, with my worthy friend JOHN BACHMAN, I observed that this little Wren made its appearance in that city and its suburbs in December. On the 1st of January I heard it in full song in the garden of my friend, who informed me that in that State it does not appear regularly every winter, but is sure to be found during very cold weather.
The Winter Wren so closely resembles the European Wren, that I was long persuaded of their identity; but a careful comparison of a great number of specimens, has convinced me that permanent differences in colouring may be pointed out, although still I am not by any means persuaded that they are specifically different.
WINTER WREN, Sylvia Troglodytes, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. i. p. 139.
TROGLODYTES EUROPAEUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 93.
TROGLODYTES HYEMALIS, Winter Wren, Swains. & Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii.p. 318.
WINTER WREN, Troglodytes hyemalis, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 427.
WINTER WREN, Troglodytes hyemalis, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iv. p. 430.
Bill rather long, slender, tapering, acute, nearly straight, subtrigonal at the base, compressed towards the end. Upper mandible with the dorsal outline slightly arched, the ridge narrow, the sides sloping at the base, towards the end slightly convex and erect, the edges sharp, direct, without notae; lower mandible with the angle narrow and rather acute, the dorsal outline straight, the back narrow, the edges sharp and inflected, the tip very narrow; the gape-line very slightly arched. Nostrils linear-oblong, basal.
Head ovate, of moderate size, neck short; body ovate. Feet of ordinary length; tarsus compressed, with seven anterior scutella, of which the upper are indistinct; toes rather large, compressed; first large, and much longer than the two lateral, which are equal, the third much longer; the third and fourth coherent as far as the second joint of the latter. Claws long, arched, extremely compressed, laterally grooved, acute.
Plumage soft and blended; no bristle-feathers at the base of the bill. Wing shortish, broad, much rounded; first quill very small, being little more than half the length of the second, which is 2 1/4 twelfths shorter than the third; the fourth longest, and exceeding the third by half a twelfth, and the fourth by somewhat less; secondaries long rounded. Tail short much rounded, of twelve slightly arched, weak rounded feathers.
Bill dusky brown, with the basal edges of the upper and two-thirds of the lower mandible paler. Iris brown. Tarsi and toes pale greenish-brown, as are the claws. The general colour of the upper parts is reddish-brown, darker on the bead, brighter on the tail-coverts, quills, and tail. There is a white spot near the tips of the posterior dorsal feathers. The secondary coverts, and the first small coverts, have each a white spot at the tip. The wing-coverts and quills banded with blackish-brown and brownish-red, the bands of the latter colour becoming reddish-white on the outer five quills. Tail with twelve dusky-bands. The dorsal feathers and scapulars are more faintly barred in the same manner. A brownish-white band from the upper mandible over the eye; the cheeks brown, spotted with brownish-white, the margins of the feathers being of the former colour; the lower parts pale reddish-brown, the sides and abdomen barred with brownish-black and greyish-white; the fore neck and breast more faintly barred; the lower wing-coverts and axillars greyish-white, barred with dusky; the lower tail-coverts brownish-red, barred with dusky and having the tip white.
Length to end of tail 3 7/8 inches, to end of wings 3 1/8, to end of claws 4 3/8; extent of wings 6 (1 1/2)/8; wing from flexure 1 7/8; tail 1 5/12; bill along the ridge 5/12; tarsus 8/12; hind toe 4/12, its claw 4/12; middle toe 6/12, its claw (2 3/4)/12. Weight 6 dr.
The female is somewhat smaller than the male.
Length to end of tail 3 5/8 inches, to end of wings 3, to end of claws 4 2/8; extent of wings 5 3/8; wing from flexure 1 7/8; tail 1 4/12. Weight 4 dr.
Young in autumn.
The upper parts are much darker than in the adult; the lower parts of a deeper tint.
Length to end of tail 3 1/2 inches, to end of wings 3 1/8, to end of claws 4 1/8; extent of wings 5 3/8; wing from flexure 1 (5 1/2)/8.
The young bird just ready to fly, has the bill bright yellow, excepting the ridge of the upper mandible, which is brown; the feet yellowish-brown. The upper parts are reddish-brown, faintly barred with dusky; the wings as in the adult, but the secondary coverts with only a very small dull white spot at the tip, and the first row of coverts with a line of the same colour along the shaft. The lower parts are dull greyish-brown, with the terminal margin of each feather darker, and the sides and hind parts barred with dusky.