Winter Wren, Troglodytes hiemalis

The Winter Wren is a tiny, short-tailed bird which looks a bit like a dark brown flying mouse as it darts below a fallen log or disappears into the roots of a large tree. More than any other wren the Winter Wren prefers large mature tracts of forest with old-growth characteristics like fallen trees, upturned roots, and rotting stumps.

On a warm winter's day you might hear its rich song of jumbled musical notes and trills.  The Winter Wren breeds across boreal North America from southern Alaska to Newfoundland and south to the northern United States, central California, and along the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia.

It spends the winter across much of the south-central and southeastern United States, and southern California. The Winter Wren is a breeding bird in higher elevations in East Tennessee and a uncommon wintering bird across the state.

In summer 2010, the American Ornithologists' Union split the Winter Wren into two distinct species due to separate breeding populations that do not hybridize, different vocalizations, and plumages.  The "Winter Wren" in the east is currently called "Winter Wren" but might be better called "Eastern Winter Wren" to avoid confusion with the "Pacific Wren", which may occur in Tennessee in winter.

Description: This small wren is dark brown overall, with a distinct pale eyebrow line. The tail is short and usually cocked upward, and the tail, wings and sides of the body have dark barring. 

Length: 4"
Wingspan: 5.5"
Weight: 0.32 oz

Voice: The song is a liquid series of trills and warbles and Winter Wrens will occasionally sing on warm winter days. During the breeding season in East Tennessee, males generally sing from late April into July.

Similar Species:

  • House Wrens have a longer tail, are a lighter brown color, and do not have a distinct eyebrow line.

Habitat: Winter Wrens prefer moist coniferous and mixed forest with old-growth forest characteristics like downed logs, standing dead trees, and large diameter trees, with dense tangles on the forest floor.

Diet: Insects, insect larvae, millipedes, spiders, and others invertebrates.

Nesting and reproduction: Winter Wrens usually return to their nesting areas in the high elevations of East Tennessee in late April and can be heard singing through July. The male often starts several nests and the female will choose one of them to complete.

Clutch Size: Usually 5 to 6 eggs.

Incubation: The female alone incubates the eggs for 14 to 17 days.

Fledging: The male and female feed the young, which fledge in about 19 days.

Nest: The nest is usually built in a natural cavity formed by the roots of a tree, a rotten stump, or in an old woodpecker hole. The male starts, and the female completes the nest, which will be a domed structure made of twigs, moss and other materials, with a central chamber lined with feathers and hair.

Status in Tennessee: The Winter Wren is a locally common summer resident in East Tennessee generally breeding above 3,000 feet in elevation. Across the state it is an uncommon migrant and winter resident, arriving in early October and departing by mid-April.

Dynamic map of Winter Wren eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • In East Tennessee most breeding birds make an altitudinal migration to lower elevations to spend the winter.
  • The scientific name "troglodyes" comes from the Greek "trogle" meaning hole, and "dyein" meaning to creep. The name, no doubt, came from the Winter Wren's habit of foraging for insects in nooks and crannies under logs and in tree roots.
  • There are 78 species of wrens in the Americas and only the Winter Wren has a range that extends into Eurasia. It is thought that they may have extended their range across the Bering Straits during the Pleistocene when there was a land bridge connecting the continents.

Obsolete English Names: northern wren, willow wren, chocolate deity

Best places to see in Tennessee: Winter Wrens breed above 3,000 feet on Roan Mountain and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. During the non-breeding season, they can be found statewide, primarily in large, moist, mature forests, with dense underbrush.