Wrens in South Dakota

9 Wrens in South Dakota: Our Fascinating Spotters’ Guide

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Wrens are a delightful family of tiny, energetic songbirds that can be found across North America, including right here in South Dakota.

With their constant motion and noisy, complex vocalizations, wrens bring excitement to backyards, parks, and natural areas where they occur. Though cute and animated, wrens can be challenging to actually spot thanks to their small size and earth-toned camouflage plumage that allows them to disappear against vegetated backgrounds.

Successfully observing these birds takes patience and knowledge of their habits and preferences. 6 kinds of wrens are either year-round residents or seasonal visitors to South Dakota. Another wren migrates through the area, and 2 wrens are rare visitors to the state. That means that we have a total of 9 wrens in South Dakota to tell you about!

Our guide to South Dakota’s wrens shares helpful identification tips and facts about the wrens that inhabit South Dakota, including both regular residents and vagrant visitors.

What Makes Wrens Unique?

Wrens belong to the avian family Troglodytidae, which includes many different species globally. Their name comes from the Greek for “cave-dweller,” although they don’t actually inhabit underground caves. They get their name from the fact that their nests are reminiscent of caves.

Wrens stand out from other perching birds in several key physical and behavioral ways:

  • Size and Shape: Small and plump with thin pointed bills, most wrens range from 4-6 inches in length. They share a rounded profile, short wings, and an upward-angled tail.
  • Vocalizations: Known for their noisy, complex vocalizations which are used to communicate year-round. They are quite loud, despite being so small.
  • Plumage: Earthy brown, buff or gray feathers provide camouflage against vegetation or rocks. Some species have additional markings like barring on their wings or tails. Forest-dwellers are brown, while rock- and canyon-dwellers are gray.
  • Behavior: Agile and acrobatic. They hop quickly along the ground and climb easily through dense brush.
  • Nests: Males usually build domed nests of twigs, grass, moss, and other materials in hidden spots, often cavities. Females may add lining materials like fur or feathers. Males also construct extra non-breeding “dummy nests.”
  • Diet: Feeding almost exclusively on insects and spiders, wrens forage by probing into crevices and holes where invertebrates hide. Some species also consume fruit, seeds, snails, small frogs, or lizards.

Tips for Spotting Wrens in South Dakota

Successfully observing wrens in South Dakota can be tricky but rewarding. Here are some useful tips:

  • Listen closely for loud wren songs and calls to detect their presence nearby before potentially seeing them.
  • Search carefully around areas like tree cavities, brush piles, rock crevices, and other spots where wrens may nest, roost, and take cover.
  • Watch for wrens stealthily hopping on the ground and briefly perching on vegetation as they actively forage and skillfully hide.
  • Try using “pishing” noises or squeaking toys to draw curious wrens temporarily into more open areas for better viewing.
  • Note signs like old nests, dropped feathers, or accumulated prey remains near potential nest cavities as clues to wrens’ presence in the area.
  • Have patience and remain alert to subtle sounds and motions indicating a wren that blends into its surroundings. Their camouflage makes them easy to accidentally overlook!

Why Are Wrens Important to South Dakota’s Ecosystems?

Despite being so tiny in stature, wrens play a valuable ecological role in South Dakota by:

  • Controlling populations of plant-damaging pest insects and disease-spreading spiders through their insectivorous diet.
  • Contributing to seed dispersal and pollination when they forage among plants.
  • Providing nourishing food resources to other wildlife when old nests gradually disintegrate.
  • Serving as indicators of overall ecosystem health through their presence and population numbers. Protecting habitats that support wrens aids in conserving biodiversity across the state.

Now let’s explore the wrens that inhabit South Dakota!

Wrens in South Dakota Year-Round

There are two kinds of wrens that are year-round residents of South Dakota: the Canyon Wren and the Carolina Wren.

Canyon Wren

Canyon Wren
  • Scientific Name: Catherpes mexicanus
  • Family: Troglodytidae
  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Length: 4.5-6.1 in (11.4-15.4 cm)
  • Weight: 0.3-0.7 oz (9.9-18.3 g)
  • Wingspan: 7.1-7.9 in (18-20 cm)

The Canyon Wren has subtle tan plumage with white throat stripes. Its fairly long tail is regularly held upright. It has a white eye ring and dainty white barring on its belly and tail that gives it a charming look.

The Canyon Wren’s lengthy thin bill curves slightly downward. Its grayish back and brownish belly make it excellent at camouflaging itself against rocky cliffs.

As expected from its name, the Canyon Wren inhabits rocky canyon walls and cliff faces in western South Dakota. It is found almost exclusively in the Black Hills region, although it may be spotted on less common occasions in the prairies.

The Canyon Wren uses its strong legs and sharp talons to climb up sheer cliff faces with ease. The male and female work together to build a nest of grass, sticks, and feathers. They will even wrap the nest in spiderwebs and feathers in crevices on cliff walls or sometimes in buildings. It uses its long bill to snatch spiders and insects off the canyon walls.

Wrens are known for their musicality, and that includes the Canyon Wren. The male sings a lovely, cascading song that echoes in the canyons. Males and females call to one another as they forage together for food.

Interesting facts about the Canyon Wren:

  • By clinging to the rocks with one foot and moving the other forward, the Canyon Wren can make its way across rocky cliffs with relative ease.
  • The Canyon Wren does not migrate.
  • From what researchers can tell, Canyon Wrens tend to be monogamous.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren
  • Scientific Name: Thryothorus ludovicianus
  • Family: Troglodytidae
  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Length: 5.5-6.5 in
  • Weight: 0.7-0.9 oz
  • Wingspan: 7-9 in

Meet the cute brown Carolina Wren. This delicate wren has rich, coppery-brown upper parts and pale tan underparts. Its face displays bold white markings including a heavy brow stripe that contrasts with the rest of its face (this eyebrow stripe is the best thing to look for when identifying the Carolina Wren!).

Its bill is long and turns slightly downward. As with other wrens, the Carolina Wren’s tail almost always angles upward.

The Carolina Wren is found almost solely in the eastern half of the United States. It is a non-migratory bird that resides in one location year-round. It is rare in South Dakota but eBird reports that there have been some sightings outside of Sioux Falls and Pierre.

The Carolina Wren has a loud, ringing call that carries far through its territory. Its song is sometimes heard as “teakettle.” It builds domed nests of grasses, leaves, and bark strips in natural cavities or manmade sites. The Carolina Wren may raise 2-3 broods per breeding season.

Interesting facts about the Carolina Wren:

  • During very cold winters, the Carolina Wren depends on its mate for warmth. It does not roost with other birds even when temperatures are freezing.
  • Males often bring food to females incubating eggs, but once the eggs hatch, both parents feed the young. Family groups are seen feeding together.
  • Carolina Wrens are very curious little birds who will poke around in leaf litter, explore squirrel nests, and flip over decaying bark and limbs to find insects and spiders to eat.

Wrens in South Dakota During the Summer Months

During the breeding season, a handful of wrens arrive in South Dakota to find a mate, build a nest, lay their eggs, and raise their hatchlings. These are the House Wren, the Marsh Wren, the Rock Wren, and the Sedge Wren.

House Wren

House Wren
  • Scientific Name: Troglodytes aedon
  • Family: Troglodytidae
  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Length: 4.3-5.1 in
  • Weight: 0.3-0.4 oz
  • Wingspan: 5.5-6.1 in

The House Wren is a tiny, lively brown bird marked by faintly barred wings and tail. Its pale gray belly contrasts its boldest feature: a prominent white eyebrow stripe. This stripe helps identify the House Wren as different from South Dakota’s many small birds.

With a skinny bill and short, often cocked tail, the House Wren fits the classic wren silhouette.

In summer, House Wrens take up residence in South Dakota’s open woodlands and wooded ravines. They nest in natural tree cavities, abandoned woodpecker holes, manmade nest boxes, and other secluded spaces that provide shelter and security. During migration, House Wrens pause to rest and refuel in varied brushy habitats with dense cover.

As fiercely territorial birds defending their breeding grounds, House Wrens vigorously chase away intruders including other wrens. They will even attack the nests of other birds, puncturing their eggs and knocking them out of the nest.

House Wrens thrive in close proximity to humans, frequently building nests incorporating discarded junk or occupying cavities and nooks in buildings and structures

Interesting facts about the House Wren:

  • Male House Wrens construct “dummy nests” that are shabbily built. Females can select the one they want to finish building.
  • With one of the most extensive breeding distributions of any North American songbird, House Wrens are found across most of the continental United States.

Marsh Wren

Marsh Wren
  • Scientific Name: Cistothorus palustris
  • Family: Troglodytidae
  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Length: 5-6 in
  • Weight: 0.4-0.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 6.3-8.3 in

The Marsh Wren is a petite brown bird marked by distinctive white “eyebrows” and faintly barred wings and tail. Its short black bill provides a stark contrast against a pale throat and white belly. Often observed in a hunched posture, its tail angles upward in that characteristic wren fashion.

Throughout the summer breeding season, South Dakota’s wetlands provide prime habitat for the Marsh Wren. It lives in marshes, wet meadows, and along the banks of slow streams and ponds. They spend the summer in the eastern half of the state. In the western half, you might see them migrating through the area in the spring and fall.

The male Marsh Wren constructs several large, round nests of woven reeds and grasses anchored over water. After inspection, his mate selects one of these sturdy nest structures in which to lay eggs and rear young. Because Marsh Wrens practice non-monogamous mating habits, the male must industriously build multiple nests to accommodate each of his mates. There are remarkable records of male Marsh Wrens constructing up to 22 nests in a single season!

Interesting facts about the Marsh Wren:

  • Thanks to the creation of extensive wetland reserves and restoration projects in recent decades, Marsh Wren populations have generally grown and even expanded their range. Their future numbers remain dependent on the preservation of remaining wetland ecosystems.
  • Adult Marsh Wrens tend to return to the same breeding area every year.

Rock Wren

Rock Wren
  • Scientific Name: Salpinctes obsoletus
  • Family: Troglodytidae
  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Length: 5-6 in
  • Weight: 0.4-0.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 7.5-8.7 in

With its pale gray upperparts, the Rock Wren has subtle black and white spotting across its wings and medium-length tail. Its throat and breast are delicately streaked, while its belly sports a crisp white coloration.

Long legs and a slender black bill are adapted for climbing and foraging on rocky substrates.

Throughout the western edge of South Dakota, the Rock Wren finds its ideal nesting and foraging grounds on rocky outcrops, cliff faces, and sloped talus fields during the summer. It can be found in central South Dakota during its spring and fall migration, but it is rarely spotted in eastern South Dakota.

Rock Wrens exhibit predominantly non-migratory behaviors, but some will still migrate. Individual Rock Wrens occasionally get blown far off course by storms and may turn up far off their normal courses.

Rock Wrens scour the ground for insects and spiders. For nesting, they typically seek out sheltered ledges along cliffsides that provide protective overhangs. However, they are adaptable in utilizing convenient cavities for nest sites that may be available in manmade structures such as bridges, buildings, and abandoned mining constructs.

Interesting facts about the Rock Wren:

  • Males sing a remarkably intricate and melodious song, with syllables and phrases repeated in varying sequences. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology spells out its song like this: “keree keree keree, chair chair chair chair, deedle deedle deedle deedle, tur tur tur tur, keree keree keree trrrrrrr.”
  • The Rock Wren’s primary predator is the snake, which raids their nests and eats their eggs.
  • Unlike most songbirds, Rock Wren pairs are believed to mate for life and cultivate long-term pair bonds that persist across years and multiple breeding seasons.
  • No one has ever documented a Rock Wren drinking water! Presumably, they are able to meet all of their hydration needs through the moisture in the insects and spiders that they eat.

Sedge Wren

Sedge Wren
  • Scientific Name: Cistothorus platensis
  • Family: Troglodytidae
  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Length: 4.5-5.5 in
  • Weight: 0.3-0.5 oz
  • Wingspan: 5.9-6.7 in

Even though the Sedge Wren is tiny, its tail is quite long compared to the rest of its body. It is a rather slender brown bird marked by short tail feathers along with buff-colored underparts and indistinct streaking across its back and crown. Its skinny bill is darker on top and pale on the bottom.

Male Sedge Wrens construct numerous globe-shaped woven nests placed carefully over wet grounds but not directly in standing water. The female then selects the nest she deems best suited for raising offspring.

The northeast corner of South Dakota is part of the Sedge Wren’s breeding territory.

Interesting facts about the Sedge Wren:

  • Sedge Wrens exhibit nomadic tendencies, as populations will thrive in a seemingly ideal habitat, but then mysteriously disappear in the following years.
  • They demonstrate flexible mating strategies, including monogamous pairs along with instances of males mating with multiple females and females mating with multiple males.
  • Sedge Wrens are fiercely territorial, even destroying the eggs in neighboring Sedge Wren nests to eliminate local competition.

Wrens That Migrate Through South Dakota, but Don’t Stay

There is just one kind of wren that migrates through South Dakota but doesn’t stay in any part of the state. That is the Winter Wren.

Winter Wren

Winter Wren
  • Scientific Name: Troglodytes hiemalis
  • Family: Troglodytidae
  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Length: 3.5-4.3 in
  • Weight: 0.3-0.4 oz
  • Wingspan: 4.7-5.9 in

The Winter Wren is a particularly tiny, rotund brown bird. It has faint barring on its wings and tail, a dark bill, and a very subtle eyebrow stripe. In that classic wren fashion, its stubby tail angles upward.

Found mostly in the eastern US and central Canada, the Winter Wren occupies moist coniferous forests as well as mixed woodlands. It thrives in areas with plenty of decaying logs, stumps, and woody debris, as these are great for both foraging and nesting.

During migration, when the Winter Wren passes through South Dakota, it pauses in streamside thickets and brushy tangles that offer cover.

Despite its very small size, the Winter Wren possesses a remarkably loud, complex voice. Males sing exuberant and lengthy songs from high, exposed perches, especially during the spring. He uses this song to claim his territory and woo a mate.

Interesting facts about the Winter Wren:

  • Winter Wrens build nests that fill the cavities that they choose; that means that if the cavity is big, so is the nest! They are known for building nests up to the size of a football.
  • With 10 times the power of a rooster’s crow, the song of the tiny Winter Wren has one of the strongest voices in the bird kingdom.

Rare Wren Visitors to South Dakota

It’s exciting to spot rare birds! Two of the wrens that are rarely documented in South Dakota are the Bewick’s Wren and the Pacific Wren. While these are not found in the state with any regularity, they have been documented enough to be included in our list, and we hope you have the chance to see one!

Bewick’s Wren

Bewick’s Wren
  • Scientific Name: Thryomanes bewickii
  • Family: Troglodytidae
  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Length: 5-6 in
  • Weight: 0.4-0.6 oz
  • Wingspan: 7-8 in

Plain light brown above with a white chin and throat, the Bewick’s Wren sports especially striking white “eyebrows.” This eyebrow line makes the Bewick’s Wren look quite stern. As expected for a wren, its long tail habitually angles upward. Its tail and wings have some dark barring.

South Dakota lies outside of the Bewick’s Wren traditional range, but eBird reports a sighting near Pierre, in central South Dakota. It is considered a rare visitor to the state.

Bewick’s Wrens occupy woodlands, scrublands, thickets, and brushy areas. They prefer areas where they can get plenty of protection from predators, thanks to dense vegetation and underbrush. They nest in both tree cavities and human-made structures.

The loud, complex breeding songs of Bewick’s Wrens ring out from concealed perches as they aggressively defend their nesting territories. For foraging, Bewick’s Wrens prey predominantly on insects, but will additionally consume seeds and berries.

Interesting facts about the Bewick’s Wren:

  • Before starting a new nest inside a cavity, they first remove any old nest materials left from prior years. Extremely adaptable in nest site selection, Bewick’s Wrens will use natural woodpecker holes, manmade structures, and artificial nest boxes.
  • Pairs remain monogamous and cooperative in sharing duties, with males assisting their mates by bringing food while females incubate the eggs.

Pacific Wren

Pacific Wren
  • Scientific Name: Troglodytes pacificus
  • Family: Troglodytidae
  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Length: 4-5 in
  • Weight: 0.3-0.4 oz
  • Wingspan: 5.5-6.5 in

The Pacific Wren is mostly deep brown, with a pale buff throat and breast, plus black barring on the wings and tail. It has pale eyebrows and a short, sharp bill.

While uncommon in South Dakota, eBird reports that the Pacific Wren has been sighted a number of times in both central and western South Dakota. This may happen when migrating Pacific Wrens are blown far off their normal routes by strong headwinds or storms.

Pacific Wrens prefer damp, old-grown coniferous forests at high elevations. They are cavity nesters who live in trees, logs, and stumps. They are loud, exuberant singers who build domed nests. The male builds the nest and then the female lines it with soft feathers and animal fur.

Interesting facts about the Pacific Wren:

  • As early spring migrants but late fall migrants, Pacific Wrens end up with an exceptionally long breeding season compared to relatives.
  • Pacific Wrens lead solitary lives, not even flocking with others of their own species outside the breeding season. They are dependent upon their mates for community and warmth in colder winters.
  • Their populations currently remain stable, but they face potential declines if climate change and habitat loss continue damaging the old-growth forests this species relies on.

More Birds in South Dakota

Wild Bird Scoop has created a series of handy birding guides for many of the birds that you can find in South Dakota! Check out our lists of other birds in the state:

Whether you live in South Dakota or are just visiting, we hope you can have an incredibly successful birding experience in the state with our customized guides.

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