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The Wrentit is this hemisphere's only representative of the Babbler Family (Timaliidae) which is otherwise found in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. How this isolated member of a family of such worldwide distribution should be found only on the Pacific coast of North America is a remarkable example of adventurous colonization by a species.
The Wrentits are a small songbird with a long tail (often held cocked), stubby straight bill, and relatively uniform gray brown coloring on head, back, wings, and tail. They have a warm brownish cast below with indistinct streaks. The iris is yellow and stands out in strong contrast to the pale gray face. It has no distinct wing bars or other conspicuous marks. The northerly populations of Wrentit are generally browner than the mostly gray California birds. Wrentits are very secretive as they move around in the dense shrubbery and are very hard to see. They are, however, very vocal. Their vibrant song is likened to the sound of a "bouncing ball" and is easily heard and recognized. In fact, they are more often heard than seen.
Wrentits live in dense thickets along the Pacific coast from Oregon through California to northern Baja California. Birds in the northern part of the range (Oregon) were recently described as defining a distinct subspecies. California populations may be found in more varied habitat types, but nonetheless, always in low, dense cover.
While Wrentits diet is mostly insects, they will take berries during shortages of insects. Young are apparently fed insects exclusively. Wrentits will come to bird feeding stations for berries, bread crumbs, and meal worms.
Wrentits are believed to mate for life. A pair will remain together in a suitable site, even as small as one acre. A bonded pair have been observed to snuggle up together at an overnight roost to the extent that they intertwine their legs, and intermesh their feathers; and, with their inner legs drawn up, they form a tight feathered ball (Erickson, M. M., 1948).
The species preferred habitat is chaparral brush and coastal brushy thickets. They may also use streamside brushy edges of parks and some suburban settings. They can also inhabit areas around human habitation and agriculture if sufficient areas of undisturbed chaparral or other dense brushlands are available.
Wrentit nests are made of a cobweb outer binding with a coarse bark structure, and a deep cup of fine bark, lined with fine fibers or even hair. The outside is often decorated with lichen, which adds a camouflaged coating to the nest.
Local populations of Wrentits disappear or decline in numbers with increasing pressures from suburbanization. They have been observed using rural residential and agricultural areas. But since they nest close to the ground, feral cats, associated with housing developments are a growing threat to this species. Other concerns are overgrazing, off-road vehicles and fire. Most likely, however, it is habitat destruction that has led to its decline and current status on the Watchlist.
More research needs to be conducted on the ecology of the Wrentit. This will aid in determining the specific habitat requirements needed for the species to successfully breed and overwinter. There is evidence to suggest that developed areas can support Wrentits if sufficient habitat is set aside for nesting pairs and their offspring. Two specific research topics may include investigation of the implication that Wrentits may benefit from backyard and parkland garden programs specifically designed for Wrentit occupation; and the effects of domestic animals, pets and pesticides on their survival.
What Can You Do?
Audubon's Important Bird Area program is an essential tool for the conservation of Wrentit as well as other species. To learn more about the Important Bird Areas program, and to learn how you can help with the IBA program visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/iba/tx.html
U.S. National Wildlife Refuges provide essential habitat for the Wrentit, and a great number of other species throughout the U.S. and its territories. Unfortunately, the refuge system is often under-funded during the U.S. government's budgeting process. To learn more about how you can help gain much needed funding for U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, visit: http://www.audubon.org/campaign/refuge_report/
CIPAMEX, Audubon's BirdLife International partner in Mexico, also has an Important Bird Areas program that is working to protect habitat for Wrentit and many other species. To learn more about Mexico's Important Bird Areas program and how you can help visit: http://126.96.36.199/wwwcampus/cipamex/
Ballard, L. R. 1983. The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding, V. 3. (J. Ferrand, ed.) Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Erickson, M. M. 1948. Gamble's Wren-tit. In Life Histories of North American nuthatches, wrens, thrashers, and their allies, by A. C. Bent. U.S. National Museum Bulletin no. 195. Washington, D.C.
Erlich, P. R., Dobkin, D. S., Wheye, D. 1988. The Birder's Handbook. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York.
Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Co., New York.
Terres. J. K. 1980. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York
Stokes, D. & L. 1996. Stokes Field Guide to Birds, Western Region. Little Brown and Company, Boston.