Not All House Wren Parents Are Equal

January 1, 2005 by Mike Newhouse and Bob Reitsma

house wren © Gerhard Hofmann

Mike Newhouse, a Towson University graduate student, studied house wrens to examine patterns of reproductive success and parental care in selected backyards of Neighborhood Nestwatch participants along the urban to wildlands gradient.

House wrens are 1 of the 8 Neighborhood Nestwatch focal species. Like Carolina chickadees, they are a cavity-nester and frequently breed in nest boxes. Unlike chickadees, which stay put for the winter, house wrens migrate, traveling as far south as Central America to spend the winter.

Their cavity-nesting behavior makes it relatively easy to study their reproductive biology because nest boxes can be placed instrategic locations that give scientists easy access and unobstructed views of parental activity during the nesting period.

Bringin' Home the Bacon

house wren feeding young

For birds breeding in natural habitats, the quality of nesting habitat is determined by a variety of factors including food availability. Once babies hatch, adults maximize the rate at which they bring food to nestlings. This intense period of parental care is an important determinant of whether a nest fails or succeeds.

Growth rates of nestlings often mirror patterns of parental care as well as local food abundance. With this in mind, Mike placed an equal number of nest boxes in suburban and rural backyards and measured nestling growth rates.

In total, he compared parental care and nestling growth rates of 26 suburban and 26 rural house wren pairs. That's a lot of driving!

Country Life Is Best

Although preliminary, the results are starting to reveal some intriguing patterns. House wren parents made significantly more feeding trips per hour in suburban backyards compared to rural backyards.

house wren nestling

Yet rural nestlings grew at a faster rate than their suburban counterparts.

In addition, suburban parents spent less time brooding (sitting on the nest) compared to rural parents.

Such results suggest that suburban backyard habitats offer house wrens food for nestlings that is inferior in either quality or quantity to what rural habitats offer. Food items may, for example, be smaller in suburban habitats, and force adults to make more trips to the box.

Another interesting finding is that females spend significantly more time feeding nestlings than males so, although male parental effort does increase as nestlings age.

This article summarizes the information in this scientific paper:

Reproductive Success of House Wrens in Suburban and Rural Land-Use Areas. 2008. Newhouse, M., Marra, Peter P. and Johnson, L. S. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 120(1): 99-104.