Life as a mommy wren

Ronna LawlessStaff Writer

My wrens are back.

One of my favorite things about this time of the year is that my wrens come home. In a way, their return is a sign of my effective parenting.

In the mid-August of 2003, my teenage son T.J. and I started caring for a nest of orphaned wrens. I determined they were orphaned as they were diligently cared for by a pair of adult wrens until suddenly they weren’t cared for at all.

I’m reluctant to interfere with wildlife, even when it appears a baby has been left alone. Often a parent really is nearby and we humans tend to make things worse with our “help.” But the birdhouse was on a pole on my deck, and I knew for certain that the parents, who worked non-stop during daylight hours to feed their babies, were now gone. And I could hear the babies were in distress.

I was apprehensive when I opened the birdhouse. I held my breath, hoping the wrens would at least have their eyes open and a few feathers so I could feel hopeful about helping them survive.

Fortunately, their beady little black eyes were open. So were their frowny little beaks, begging for food.

I removed the five downy-feathered babies from their wooden home, nest and all, and relocated them to an empty plastic ice cream pail.

We used tweezers to feed them mealworms. Caring for them was incredibly time-consuming. During the day, there wasn’t an hour that went by when we didn’t check on them or feed them. It was a bit of a blessing to be so busy and have our thoughts occupied as T.J.’s dad was serving in Iraq at the time.

When we were busy, we would take the ice cream container and the mealworms to my parents’ house, and they would wren-sit.

After a few days, the babies were big enough to leave their nest and had free rein of our screened-in porch. We propped some tree branches in there, and they practiced flying from twig to twig and also learned to cling onto the window screens.

When we came out to feed them, they would come flapping and stamping, or flutter through the air to land on the tops of our feet or our shoulders. It was like a scene from a Disney movie.

They always looked a little grouchy with those downturned beaks, and when they were mad and hungry, their voices sounded like tiny machine guns. They settled down after their bellies were full, but they still looked grouchy.

Ten days and 1,000 mealworms after they were orphaned, we released the wrens at my mom and dad’s acreage in south Ames. When I took the lid off their container, four of them flew into the tall grass and plum thicket. One flew onto me for a minute but then took off to join his siblings.

The next day, I went to check on them where we’d released them, talking to them in a sing-songy voice like I had every day, “Hey, you little birds!” They came out of the shrubs, peeping and flapping. I had some mealworms to feed them, just in case, and they were eager to eat them.

It was so funny to have wild baby creatures come out of the trees when they heard my voice. I was their mommy bird, after all.

But it was also a little worrisome. I wanted them to survive, and I’d hoped not to make them so tame they wouldn’t have good skills in the wild. We had avoided naming them or overhanding them, trying to preserve their wildness.

We didn’t know until the next spring how successful our efforts had been. It seemed that all five of the wrens had reached adulthood and came back to my parents’ property to nest. My parents hadn’t had nesting wrens there before, and Dad had to put up extra birdhouses to accommodate all of them.

They’ve returned every year since, or at least their progeny have. They fill the acreage with their mellifluous songs. Wrens have one of the most beautiful songs, I think. They don’t come out of the trees to land on me anymore, thank goodness. But I like to think that when I say to them, “Hey, you little birds,” they sing back to me.

Ronna Lawless is a writer for the Nevada Journal and Tri-County Times. You can email her at rlawless@nevadaiowajournal.com

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Twitter, @ronna67.