A Song for May 19

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Click the sonogram to hear and see the sound.

I had already packed up my gear to depart the campground at Kartchner Caverns State Park when the neighborhood Cactus Wrens started a performance that changed my plans. As I have so often, I hastily unpacked, geared up, and started recording. The wrens were completely preoccupied, and I was able to record this passionate but decorous competition at close range. You can even hear their wingbeats when they move.

One of three birds, presumably a male, held a small fluffy object in his bill while hopping around on the ground singing his normal song, with numerous rasp calls interspersed. Another wren, also on the ground, paid close attention to him. This was probably a female, based on behavior, although male and female wrens have no plumage differences that are distinguishable by humans. A third bird, probably a competing male, gave rasps nearby. This went on for a while; eventually both males were singing. At the end of the cut, the female went off with the second male, while the first male flew to a cactus with his piece of fluff.

I presume the first bird was courting the second. Whether she was mated to him, the third bird, or undecided, is unclear to me. Nathan Pieplow hypothesizes that rasp is used in greeting between pairs. The use of this call by both presumed males supports the idea that they were wooing the third bird. Of course we'll never know in this case, but ornithologists can and do follow the ins and outs of mate relations in birds by putting color bands on their legs, which enables the human to distinguish individuals. I've done it with chickadees, and their social lives really are soap opera material. Listen to the recording again and write your own script for these wrens.

The wren family, Troglodytidae, originated in North America. It has spread to Eurasia and South America, producing only one species in the former, but many in the latter. The Cactus Wren is the northernmost representative of its genus, Campylorhynchus, one of the lineages that colonized South America. Some of the wrens are adept songsters; this genus, not so much. But the gurgling song of a Cactus Wren sounds like heat itself; it is all you need to conjure desert.

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