The largest wren in North America and the state bird of Arizona, the cactus wren is often mistaken for a thrasher because of its ground-foraging behavior and tendency to run rather than fly when threatened or startled. A closer look, however, easily reveals this bird’s relationships to other members of the wren family Troglodytidae in proportions, markings, and noisy vocabulary. This fact sheet can help all birders better appreciate what makes the cactus wren so unique.
- Scientific Name: Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus
- Common Name: Cactus wren
- Lifespan: 7-10 years
- Size: 8-9 inches
- Weight: 1.3-1.5 ounces
- Wingspan: 10-11 inches
- Conservation Status: Least concern
Cactus Wren Identification
Cactus wrens have a large head, long tail, and overall bulky build. These birds have a long, dark bill that can look somewhat paler on the underside. Like many wrens, the bill is slightly curved downward. Males and females are similar, with a dark brown crown that contrasts sharply with the long, thick, white eyebrow. The white chin and malar stripes frame a variable black throat that extends to heavy black spotting or streaking on the breast and lighter spotting on the buff underparts.
The darkness of the underparts may vary from a light creamy white to deeper orange-buff. The upperparts are mottled brown and black with thin white streaking, and dark barring is clearly visible on the wings. The tail has black and white barring on the underside with thin white tips on all feathers, and the undertail coverts are buff with black spots. The eyes are reddish brown and the legs and feet are grayish black.
Juveniles are similar to adults but have much less extensive black spotting on the underparts, particularly on the breast.
Cactus wrens have a relatively large repertoire of harsh, raspy calls, including a "tek-tek-tek" series of syllables and a harsh "raaack" croak. Other calls include growls, squeals, and buzzing. The typical song is an evenly spaced, somewhat raspy, single-pitched "churr-churr-churr-churr" series that is slightly slower at the beginning of the song but even through the middle and end of each repetition.
Cactus Wren Habitat and Distribution
These large wrens prefer arid habitats such as semi-desert, desert scrub, and full desert regions, particularly where yucca, mesquite, cholla, or saguaro cacti are abundant and much of the ground is covered with gravel. They are found from southern California through the southern tip of Nevada and southwestern Utah, southwestern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and southwestern Texas, continuing south into northern and central Mexico as well as Baja California.
Cactus wrens do not migrate, staying in the same range year-round instead. Because they prefer dry habitats, they may move slightly out of flooded areas during wetter seasons, but this is not a true migration and is not consistent behavior.
Cactus wrens are typically found in pairs or small family groups, and they are most active directly on the ground or low in shrubs as they forage, though they may perch higher up for better visibility. These birds will walk or hop and may run when startled rather than take flight. They are weak fliers, and their flight paths can seem erratic and uncoordinated. Unlike other wrens, these birds do not usually hold their tails cocked upward, but they are just as inquisitive as their smaller cousins and often seem unafraid or unconcerned when humans are nearby.
Diet and Feeding
Cactus wrens are primarily insectivorous and eat a wide range of different insects, including beetles, ants, spiders, wasps, termites, and grasshoppers. They will also eat fruit, berries, nectar, and seeds, and have been recorded hunting small amphibians and reptiles. While foraging, they glean insects not only from rocks but also from branches and shrubbery.
Unlike many other birds, cactus wrens rarely visit birdbaths and instead get the majority of the water they need from the insects and cactus fruits they eat. To keep clean and preened, they will often take dust baths.
These are monogamous birds and are believed to mate for life. The male will build a dome-shaped nest of stems, grasses, and similar material lined with feathers and fur with a tunnel or tube-like entrance on the side. The nest is usually positioned in the narrow fork of a cactus where the plant's spines provide an extra deterrent to potential predators, though cactus wrens are aggressive when guarding their nesting sites and will mob intruders to drive them away. Some nesting birds may take advantage of old woodpecker or owl holes.
Eggs and Young
The cactus wren’s oval-shaped eggs are a pinkish color with red or brownish specks that are often more heavily concentrated at the larger end of the egg. There are two to seven eggs laid per brood, and one pair of cactus wrens may lay 1 to 3 broods annually. The female parent incubates the eggs for 15 to 17 days, and both parents feed the chicks for 19 to 23 days after hatching until they are ready to leave the nest.
After the young birds have left the nest, the parents may continue using the old nest as a roosting site throughout the year.
Cactus Wren Conservation
While the cactus wren is not considered threatened or endangered, the continued development of desert areas for housing, golf courses, solar farms, agriculture, and other uses is fragmenting this species' habitat and causing some population declines, particularly in California and Texas. Preserving connected tracts of desert habitat will help preserve cactus wrens, and encouraging native landscaping and xeriscaping in suburban areas can also be helpful.
Feral cats are a grave threat to cactus wrens, particularly in suburban areas. Because these birds forage primarily on the ground and are often reluctant to fly, they are more vulnerable to being hunted by cats.
Tips for Backyard Birders
Though these birds are widespread, they can be relatively uncommon. They are typically unafraid of humans, however, and will visit backyards where the habitat is appropriate, especially if ground feeders offer treats such as bread or apple slices. Cactus wrens will also visit suet and sunflower seed feeders. Preserving native cacti in landscaping and practicing desert-friendly natural landscaping can also provide these birds with familiar habitat and suitable nesting sites, and adding a dust bath area can tempt cactus wrens to visit.
How to Find This Bird
The cactus wren can be relatively easy to find in the proper range and habitat because it is so large and noticeable. Watch for these wrens on tall cacti, where they perch to search for food and survey their range. Visiting nature centers with feeding stations in desert regions can also lead to great cactus wren sightings and photo opportunities as the birds return to the same spot repeatedly.
Cactus Wrens in Culture
The cactus wren was adopted as the official state bird of Arizona by a legislative bill on March 16, 1931, though it is absent in the northeastern part of the state. It is easy to recognize, however, and is a popular Arizona symbol as a mascot for schools or as part of school names.
Explore More Species in This Family
The Troglodytidae bird family includes more than 90 species of wrens. Birders can easily take steps to attract wrens to their yard, such as offering wren-friendly birdhouses, and there are always more wren species to enjoy, including: