With so many types of wrens in North America, telling individual species of wrens apart can be tricky. With these handy tips, identifying the 10 types of wrens is a breeze. Wrens are an entertaining small bird species found in much of North America. They’re sometimes called troglodytes due to their habit of disappearing into crevices to forage for insects.
In several places, multiple species of wren can be found together. This can make the overlapping species difficult to tell apart. We’ll cover how to tell the different types of wrens apart and share some fun facts about these quirky little birds.
Types of Wrens
There are 10 types of wren in North America. 11 if you count the Pacific wren subspecies, found in Alaska’s Aleutian island chain. Many ranges of the different species of wrens overlap, making it a bit challenging to tell them apart by location alone.
These energetic brown birds are found in various habitats, from rocky desert-scapes to dense thickets. Some types of wrens even favor wetland habitats! Wrens are often found flocking with other brown birds.
Wrens are a New World bird species from the family Troglodytidae. These small birds have short tails and range from dark brown to tan with dark speckles. They also come in a reddish brown called rufous brown.
House Wren Identification
House wrens are small brown birds with dark baring on their short tails and wings. Their throats are lighter colored than the rest of their bodies, and they both have a chipper, energetic song. As their name suggests, house wrens are found around residential areas, and will often visit bird feeders.
The house wren’s range covers most of the New World. During the breeding season, house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) can be found in the United States and southern Canada. The house wren spends the non-breeding season in Southern United States, Mexico, and South America.
House wrens closely resemble the winter wren. These two bird species’ overlapping ranges are often difficult to tell apart. Breeding season and winter locations can help, but a behavior will help you identify the house wren. This little brown bird is typically foraging for insects on low branches or shrubs.
Winter Wren Identification
Winter wrens (Troglodytes hiemalis) are small, rufous-brown birds with round bodies. They have slightly lighter undersides with dark barring all over them. They have short tails they hold upright and short, stubby wings. Winter wrens have a barely visible whitish eye line.
Winter wren breeding territories are located in the northernmost American states and Canada. Outside of the breeding season, winter wrens are found in the eastern United States and briefly in Manitoba, Canada, during their migration. Since winter wrens aren’t the best flyers, you’re most likely to find them hopping around forest floors picking through leaves and decaying branches for food. They are shy birds rarely found in the open or near humans.
Carolina Wren Identification
The Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) is our list’s most brightly colored type of wren, they have rufous and cinnamon brown plumage, are short and stout, with barring on their wings and tail. The signature white eyebrow is prominent on the Carolina wren. Like many species of wren, they keep their short tail cocked upward when perched.
The Carolina wren is the most common type of wren seen. The Carolina wren makes up more than 17% of the total North American wren population. Carolina wrens are also one of the most striking species of a wren on our list.
Despite boasting over 17% of the total wren population, the non-migratory Carolina wren has a limited range. They are found in the eastern United States and eastern Mexico. Because they are sensitive to cold weather, you won’t find a Carolina wren too far north.
Bewick’s Wren Appearance
The bewick’s wren is a small songbird with a whitish gray underbelly and a white throat. This mostly dark brown bird has black barring on its short tail. The bright white eyebrow marking is the most distinctive feature of the bewick’s wren.
Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii) lives in the western United States and Mexico. This compact little bird thrives in open woodlands. Like most woodland dwelling species of wren, the bewick’s wren nest sites are found in cavities. They are secondary cavity nesters, using woodpecker holes and other natural crevices to build their nests.
Canyon Wren Identification
The canyon wren has a rufous-brown body, a grayish brown head, and a white throat. The entire body is speckled, and there is barring on the tail. The canyon wren also has a flatter skull than other wrens with a longer beak. This allows them to stick their heads inside crevices to forage insects.
The canyon wren (Catherpes mexicanus) is found in Mexico’s deserts and dry, rocky canyons, southern British Columbia, Canada, and the western half of the United States. Canyon wrens are year-round residents who build their nests in cliffs and other steep rocky locations. They often compete with cliff swallows for nesting sites and can be aggressive and territorial.
Cactus Wren Identification
Cactus wrens are heavily speckled with a long tail and prominent white eyebrows. Black speckles start in a large clump at the throat, thinning out on the breast and belly. The underside of the cactus wren’s tail has black barring. Their belly is a whitish brown with cinnamon coloring around their legs.
Of all the species of wren, the cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) has a unique look. Tall and sleek, this wren has a much longer tail than its fellow troglodytes. As their name suggests, cactus wrens use cactus for their homes and nesting sites. They build nests year-round and use them for both raising nestlings and roosting.
Cactus wrens live in the southwest United States and Mexico throughout the year and do not migrate. This unique and beautiful wren is in steep decline, largely due to habitat disruption. Their numbers have dropped by around 51% since the 1960s.
How do you identify a rock wren?
Rock wrens are tawny brown birds with whitish speckles. These wrens are thinner than many species of wren, with barring under their tail and white speckles over their back, wings, and top of the tail. The feathers around their legs are a soft reddish brown in color. There is a slight whitish eyebrow mark.
The rock wren (Salpinctes obsoletus )can be found in the western United States, along the Us-Canada border, and in Mexico. A few places in Central America have a small population of rock wren, which thrive in rocky deserts. Like many desert-dwelling bird species, rock wrens are ground foragers. They can be found hopping around the desert, searching crevices for insects.
They use rocky crevices as nesting sites, which are well-hidden. The location of the nesting site is often given away by the distinct walkway made of pebbles and other debris. Rock wren nests can also be found in gravel pits and around railroad tracks. Because rock wrens are willing to use human landscaping as nesting sites, they haven’t been near as effected by desert habitat loss as other desert wrens.
Sedge Wren Identification
Sedge wrens live in wetland habitats, preferring grasslands in bogs, wet fields, and shallow marshes over deeper waters. This russet-brown bird has to bar over its upper body. The throat and belly are whitish brown, and their legs are especially long. The sedge wren has an exceptionally short tail, even among species of the wren.
The sedge wren (Cistothorus platensis) has a small, defined range when compared to other wrens. This wetland dweller is mostly found in the midwestern United States, central Canada, and northeastern Mexico. Sedge wrens are shy birds who spend most of their day foraging for insects and spiders in dense wetland grasses and shrubs.
Marsh Wren Identification
Marsh wrens are medium to dark brown birds with barring on the tail, outer parts of the wings, and a small line down the back. Underparts are slightly lighter reddish brown with a gray to the whitish throat. The marsh wren also has a small white eyebrow mark that is clearly defined.
Marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris) can be found in marshes throughout North America. They live in deep wetlands with plenty of cattails and water reeds. Males build multiple nests among the cattails and reeds, mating with two or more female wrens. Despite their diminutive size, these tiny birds are fiercely territorial, often destroying nests of rival male marsh wrens.
Pacific Wren Identification
Pacific wrens are found along the Pacific coast from southern California to Alaska. The Pacific wren is also the only species of a wren on our list with its own subspecies. Aleutian Pacific wrens are only found in Alaska. Both species of Pacific wrens are identical-looking rufous brown birds with barring on the wings, belly, and tail.
Pacific wrens (Troglodytes pacificus) live in forests along the west coast. They favor old-growth forests with dense ground cover. The male Pacific wren will build multiple nests, bringing his prospective mate to each nesting site to pick her favorite nest.
The subspecies Aleutian Pacific Wren (Troglodytes pacificus alascensis) are found exclusively in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. This subspecies has adapted to the harsher, more open habitat. Like all woodland wren species, they use crevices and natural cavities for their nesting sites.
Pacific wrens look very similar to winter wrens. Until 2010, the winter wren and Pacific wren were considered the same species. Since ornithologists split the two species, the range maps are clearly defined and do not overlap.
Interesting facts about wrens
- While they look nothing alike, the canyon wren and the rock wren are close relatives of one another.
- Of all the birds from the family Troglodytidae, the Eurasian wren is the only Old World bird species.
- Wrens will eat mostly insects, but they will also eat peanut butter and suet. You don’t even need a bird feeder for the peanut butter; these backyard birds will happily eat peanut butter smeared on tree limbs.
- Some species of wrens are migratory birds, and some are not. The carolina wren, cactus wren, canyon wren, and the Aleutian sub-species of the Pacific wren all stay in their territories year-round.
- While many people mistakenly think the state bird of Arizona is the roadrunner, it’s actually the cactus wren.
- Wrens are cavity nesters who will readily use nesting boxes, birdhouses, and old woodpecker holes to raise their nestlings.
- Desert dwelling wrens choose crevices, cliff faces, cacti and even the ground for their nesting sites.
- Woodland dwelling wren song is often mistaken for sparrow song.
While many species of wren look almost identical, behavior, location, and specific physical features will help you determine which type of wren you’ve found. No matter the species, this small bird with a big personality is a charming addition to your backyard bird flock.