Marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris)

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Marsh wren singing on territory
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST
CONCERN

Top facts

  • As its name suggests, the marsh wren can be found in a variety of marshy habitats, where it forages for insects and other invertebrates.
  • The marsh wren is a polygynous species, meaning that the males mate with more than one female during the breeding season.
  • The nest of the marsh wren has a side entrance with a small ledge, which prevents the eggs from falling out.
  • The marsh wren is native to North America, occurring throughout much of the continent.
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Marsh wren fact file

Marsh wren description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyTroglodytidae
GenusCistothorus (1)

A true songbird that is more often heard than seen (3), the marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris) is a small brown (2) (4) to cinnamon-brown bird (3) with a dark brown to blackish cap (2) (3) (4) and whitish ‘eyebrows’ (2) (3) (4) (5) (6).  The black back of this species is streaked white (2) (3) (4) (5), while the underparts are pale greyish to whitish, becoming buffy on the sides (2) (3) (4).

The wings of this North American bird are brown, and are marked with darker brown bars (4). Similar barring can be seen on the tail (3), which is often held upright (2) (5). The slender bill (2) (5) of the marsh wren is dark brown above, yellowish-brown below (4), and is slightly down-curved (5). The marsh wren has brown eyes and pale brown legs (4).

Male and female marsh wrens are similar in appearance (3) (4) (5), although males tend to be larger (3). Interestingly, western populations of this species are generally paler and drabber than their eastern counterparts (2). Juveniles of this species are similar to the adult, but are typically duller (4), do not have such bold streaking on the back (2) (4), and have much less prominent ‘eyebrows’ (2).

The unmistakable song of the marsh wren is a gurgling or bubbling chatter (2) (3) (4), and has been likened to the sound of an old-fashioned sewing machine or the grating of a rusty hinge (3). Only male marsh wrens sing (3) (4), and typically learn between 50 and 200 songs types (3) which are often sung day and night (2) (3) (5). The song of this species generally starts with a few scraping notes, and ends in a slightly more musical trill (5).

There are thought to be 16 different subspecies of marsh wren (4), which all differ in distribution, colour, pattern and size (3) (4). Differences in song are evident between the eastern and western populations of this species (2) (3), with the songs of western marsh wrens tending to be harsher but more varied than those of eastern marsh wrens, which are more melodic (2) (3) (4).

Also known as
eastern marsh wren, long-billed marsh wren, western marsh wren.
Synonyms
Certhia palustris.
Size
Length: 10 - 14 cm (2) (3)
Male weight: 10.5 - 13.5 g (4)
Female weight: 9 - 13.5 g (4)
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Marsh wren biology

An active species, the marsh wren gets its scientific name from two Greek words, cistos and thouros, meaning ‘shrub’ and ‘leaping’, respectively, and the Latin word palustris, meaning ‘marshy’ (6). This refers to the bird’s habit of constantly moving around on or near the marsh floor (2) (3), foraging for prey low in the vegetation (3) (4).

The marsh wren’s diet is formed mostly of invertebrates (3) (4), including ants, wasps, beetles, and spiders (2) (3) (4). As well as searching along the marsh floor, the marsh wren also gleans prey items from the stems and leaves of cattails and other marsh vegetation, and may make brief sallies into the air to catch flying insects (3). Interestingly, this species is known to frequently damage, and sometimes eat, the eggs of other bird species as well as the eggs of other marsh wrens (3) (4).

Migrant marsh wrens typically arrive on their breeding grounds between late April and early June (5), with southern populations tending to breed earlier than those in the north (4). Individuals of this species often exhibit site fidelity between years, returning to their home marshes (5) where males display on territory borders by fluffing out their feathers and quivering their wings at other males (5). The marsh wren is a polygynous species, meaning that the males mate with more than one female during the breeding season (3) (4) (5).

The male marsh wren builds several nests in a breeding season (3) (4) (5), typically 5 or 6 but sometimes as many as 27 (5), before escorting potential mates around the site to inspect them (3) (4) (5). During these encounters, the male frequently bows low with his tail held high (3), and the female marsh wren typically selects a nest by adding layers and lining to the chosen one (3) (4) (5). Alternatively, the female may build a nest from scratch (3) (5).

The nest itself is a domed mass of grasses and sedges (2) (4) lined with fine leaves, feathers and small stems (3) (4), and can take up to eight days to complete (4). This structure is lashed to vegetation (2), and is typically placed about one metre above the water (4). A completed breeding nest can be identified by the presence of a side entrance hole (2) and a small, protruding shelf of lining material which prevents the eggs from rolling out (3) (4).

The female marsh wren usually lays a clutch of four to six eggs (3) (4) (5), although clutches can contain as few as three and as many as ten eggs (2) (3) (4). The timing of peak egg laying varies depending on the location, with most eggs being laid between early June and late July in New York state, and as early as late May in Illinois (3). Marsh wren eggs are dull, chocolate brown and are speckled with dark spots (2) (4) (5), particularly around the larger end (3). Only the female incubates the eggs (3) (4) (5), with incubation lasting between 12 (3) and 16 days (4). The male marsh wren’s involvement in caring for the young is variable across this species’ range (3) (4). The young marsh wrens typically fledge after about 13 to 15 days (3) (4), but may be fed by the adult birds for a further 2 weeks (3). Female marsh wrens are known to produce more than one brood per breeding season (3).

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Marsh wren range

The marsh wren occurs throughout much of North America (3) (4), being native to Canada, Mexico and the United States (7). The breeding range of this species stretches from southern Canada and New England (5) southwards through to Vermont, south-eastern Maine and Massachusetts (3).

During the winter, the marsh wren can be found in coastal marshes and tidal rivers from New Jersey southwards to Florida, Texas (3), Baja California and central Mexico (3) (5). In mild conditions, this species may winter as far north as it breeds (3), and it is resident year-round in some parts of its range (5), including some areas of California, Arizona, Missouri and southern Illinois (3).

The marsh wren is considered to be a vagrant in Bermuda, Cuba and Greenland (7).

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Marsh wren habitat

As its name suggests, the marsh wren can be found in a variety of marsh habitats throughout North America (2) (3), particularly those with dense growth (2) (5) of cattail (Typha species) and bulrush (Scirpus species) (2) (3) (4) (6). This species occurs in both freshwater and brackish marshes (3) (4), and in the latter tends to be found where cordgrass (Spartina species) is dominant (4).

The marsh wren is known to occur from sea level to elevations of at least 1,000 metres, with the disjunct subspecies Cistothorus palustris tolucensis being found at higher elevations up to 2,500 metres in Mexico (4).

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Marsh wren status

The marsh wren is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Marsh wren threats

The marsh wren has an extremely large range and a large, increasing population (7), and so is not considered to be globally threatened at present (4). However, this species is thought to be declining in the eastern portion of its range (2).

Historically, the marsh wren suffered as a result of habitat loss through wetland drainage (4), which led to declines in several states including Ohio, Michigan and Florida (3). Significant numbers of marsh wrens die each year through collisions with tall buildings and communications towers (3).

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Marsh wren conservation

There are currently no known conservation measures in place specifically for the marsh wren. However, this species is known to readily colonise artificially created marshes (3), and this has helped to increase local populations in some areas (4).

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Find out more

Find out more about the marsh wren:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Brackish
Slightly salty water, usually a mixture of salt and freshwater, such as that found in estuaries.
Gleaning
The catching of prey by plucking it from or within foliage.
Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Incubation
The act of incubating eggs; that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
Invertebrates
Animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones) and echinoderms.
Polygynous
A mating system in which males have more than one female partner.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
Territory
An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a group.
Vagrant
An individual found outside the normal range of the species.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2014)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. All About Birds - Marsh wren (January, 2014)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/marsh_wren/id
  3. Kroodsma, D.E. and Verner, J. (1997) Marsh wren (Cistothoruspalustris). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/308/articles/introduction
  4. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D.A. (2005) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 10: Cuckoo-shrikes to Thrushes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Available at:
    http://www.hbw.com/
  5. Eastman, J.A. (1999) Birds of Lake, Pond, and Marsh: Water and Wetland Birds of Eastern North America. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
  6. McGillivray, W.B. and Semenchuk, G.P. (1998) Federation of Alberta Naturalists Field Guide to Alberta Birds. Nature Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.
  7. BirdLife International - Marsh wren (January, 2014)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=6937
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Image credit

Marsh wren singing on territory  
Marsh wren singing on territory

© Jim Zipp / www.ardea.com

Ardea wildlife pets environment
59 Tranquil Vale
London
SE3 0BS
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 208 318 1401
ardea@ardea.co.uk
http://www.ardea.com

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