Bird GuideWrensCactus Wren
Cactus Wren
Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

At a Glance

Big and bold, with strong markings and a harsh rasping voice, this bird is very different from our other temperate-zone wrens. It represents a tropical group of large, sociable wrens, with eight species in Mexico and a few more farther south. Cactus Wrens are common in our desert southwest. They are usually seen in pairs or family parties, strutting on the ground or hopping in the brush, often posturing with spread wings and tails as they call to each other. Their bulky nests are conspicuous in cholla cactus and desert trees; after the breeding season, the wrens may sleep in these at night.
Perching Birds, Wrens
Low Concern
Desert and Arid Habitats, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets, Urban and Suburban Habitats
California, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southwest, Texas

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

Permanent resident.


8 1/4" (21 cm). More boldly barred, striped, and spotted than other desert birds, with sharp white eyebrow. Compare to Sage Thrasher. Juvenile has less spotting on chest.
About the size of a Sparrow, About the size of a Robin
Black, Brown, Tan, White
Wing Shape
Tail Shape
Long, Rounded, Wedge-shaped

Songs and Calls

Rapid, mechanical chug-chug-chug-chug-chug.
Call Pattern
Call Type
Buzz, Chirp/Chip, Raucous


Cactus, yucca, mesquite; arid brush, deserts. Lives in a variety of low dry habitats. Most numerous in desert, in areas with thorny shrubs and cactus, especially where cholla cactus is common; also found in mesquite brush, in towns, and locally in coastal chaparral where cactus grows.



3-4, sometimes 2-5. Whitish to pale pink, heavily spotted with brown. Incubation is by female only, about 16 days.


Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave nest about 19-23 days after hatching, may remain on parents' territory for some time thereafter.

Feeding Behavior

Forages on the ground and in low trees, probing in bark crevices and among leaf litter on ground. Often forages in pairs or family groups. On the ground, often inserts bill under a leaf or small rock and lifts up to look for food underneath. Adaptable and curious, will explore possible new sources of food, learning to probe in cones of planted pines and to pick smashed insects from the front ends of parked cars.


Mostly insects, some fruits and seeds. Feeds on a wide variety of insects, including beetles, ants, wasps, true bugs, grasshoppers, and many others. Also eats a few spiders, and occasionally small lizards. Eats more plant material than other wrens (up to 20%), including berries, cactus fruits, seeds, some nectar.


May mate for life, pairs remaining together all year on permanent territory. Members of pair have greeting display, perching upright with wings and tail partly spread, giving harsh calls. Male may build extra "dummy" nests while female is incubating. Adults sometimes puncture eggs of other birds nesting nearby. Nest site is in cactus (especially cholla), tree yucca, or thorny low tree such as mesquite, acacia, or paloverde; usually less than 10' above the ground, rarely up to 30'. Sometimes nests in hole in building or in large cavity in giant cactus. Nest (built by both sexes) is a bulky mass of weeds, grass, twigs, lined with feathers, animal hair, plant down. Nest is shaped like football lying on its side; entrance at one end, with narrow tubular passage leading to nest chamber.

Climate Vulnerability

Conservation Status

Surveys suggest numbers are declining in parts of Texas. Scarce population on coastal slope of southern California may be threatened. In main southwestern range, still widespread and abundant.

Climate Map

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Cactus Wren. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.

Climate Threats Facing the Cactus Wren

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.