This Cochise County cactus wren, Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus, was definitely a juvenile. The species and age were both obvious once the photos were enlarged on the computer screen.
However, none of that was clear during the actual encounter with the little bug pecking bird. I was out back by our water tower, fixing a plumbing boo-boo. (It helps to remember to glue the joints together before pumping water through the PVC pipes.) My feathered friend was curious and friendly, going about its business of stabbing insects out of the red clay earth while trying to figure out what I was doing.
For half an hour at least, maybe more, the little one would dart hither, thither, and yon, alternating between quick, short dashes and pecking chow right out of the ground, yet never straying more than thirty feet from my location.
Small as it was compared to my looming human size, it seemed to sense no threat and at times approached as close as seven feet from where I was plumbing.
The possibility of a bird this young showing up in mid-December never occurred to me. Cactus wrens do raise more than one batch of babies per year, though. This one was barely half the size of a typical adult Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus, so unless it was a deformed runt (which it did not appear to be), Mom and Dad Wren were busy doing the parenting thing long after the last grasshopper had died off and temperatures had begun dropping toward the freezing mark.
The extreme youth of this little avian Friend to Man wasn’t that apparent while we were out there interacting with each other. In fact, most of the photos don’t make the juvenile status of the bird all that clear, either–except for the markings, which are more muted, less striking, than in the adults.
For example, the light stripe above the eye is sharply defined in older individuals but hardly stands out at all on this teenager. The barred pattern on the tail is barely there, and even the distinctive speckled chest required an enlarged photo before it was apparent to the observer.
This observer, anyway.
Living on our off grid Cochise County acreage is an education unto itself. I had no clue that in this cooler winter-is-coming weather, there were still plenty of insects and other bugs roaming around just beneath the surface of the land. Watching the young cactus wren feed itself by hunting those tiny creatures proved that to be the case, though.
First, the bird would take a listening stance, cocking its head to one side in order to hear a bug moving around a millimeter underground.
Next, having located the quarry, this hunting wren would stab down into the soil, frequently coming up with a clay covered snack. It must take a lot of those tiny bugs to feed even a small bird, but the avian predator covers a lot of ground and pecks up a lot of bugs over time.
Clearly, the system works.
The cactus wren is the state bird of Arizona, common enough in our desert country, yet this was only the second sighting of the species we’ve had on our 20 acres during the five years we’ve been here. We’d like to see more of them, but at least the presence of a youngster counts as evidence of a mating pair living somewhere nearby.
Adults are fairly sizeable, seven to nine inches in total length. This baby wasn’t nearly that large, a fact made clear when it perched on a discarded piece of 1″ PVC pipe for a moment.
Several online sources refer to this bird as the desert noisemaker. It supposedly makes a “chur-chur-chur” monotone sound. Frankly, I’ve never noticed–though my wife would say that’s because I can’t hear anything, anyway. (I hear better than she thinks I do, but what she doesn’t know….)
Juveniles reportedly have a softer, quieter warble. At a guess, that’s what my friend was doing, warbling softly, when the camera caught the next shot.
The truly inquisitive nature of this bird became obvious as it worked its way around the other side of the water tower, through a bunch of bunch grass, and showed up again on the gravel next to my worksite. It had taken some minutes, but the cactus wren was obviously circling me at what it felt was a safe distance yet close enough to check me out.
It didn’t seem bothered at all by my working away at the plumbing. Most wildlife around here will startle and move away when I stand up from a seated or squatting position, but not this curious, bright eyed little critter.
Reportedly, cactus wrens do fall prey to various predators–but I’m willing to bet when that happens, it’s almost always an ambush case. With a second’s warning, the wren can move with impressive speed.
The following photo didn’t quite manage to squeeze all of the bird into the frame. The wren was doing one of its frequent darts. Shutter speed was at least 1/400 second…and still there’s nothing but a blur of motion recorded.
To put this into perspective, consider this: I used to take pictures of saddle broncs and bulls in the rodeo arena. Back then, finding camera and film that would produce at 1/400 second was considered state of the art; we seldom saw anything faster. And yet that was enough to stop the action of a high flying horse (or bull) sailing back down to earth. There was never the slightest hint of blur, not even on a kicking hoof.
Of course, speed is life when you’re a tasty morsel weighing no more than a few ounces.
The bird’s comfort in my presence was a balm to me. Pam is more of a critter magnet than I am; this young wren would likely have run right up to her, had she been the one doing the plumbing when the sighting occurred. But I take what I can get, and this little flyer’s trust was soothing. (Not that I saw it fly; it was far too busy, hunting ground-covered insects.)
Some of our other birds are curious, but none will knowingly allow me as close to them as this one did.
The age helps, of course. Our coyote friend, Angel, was still little more than a pup when she first made our acquaintance. The friendliest cottontail rabbits are those who figure out the connection between humans and sliced carrots before they’re reached breeding age. Kids of any species are as a rule less paranoid than older, wilder adults who never saw a human until after they were grown.
I’ve got nearly two dozen more photos of this juvenile cactus wren that are good enough to publish, but I’ve got to stop somewhere.
A few more?
Okay. Just a few.