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Voices of Spencer Creek

Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Harbinger of Spring

Inspite of pesticides, hurricanes and loss of habitat, the wrens return bringing warm weather in their wake

By Lois Barton

Posted on May 15, 2003

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"Wren" by Lang Elliot, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, photo at the The Pennsylvania Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources

Oh, joy! My harbinger of spring put in an appearance this morning. You may conclude that spring is here when the swallows get back to Capistrano. Not me! The appearance in my dooryard of a house wren is my signal. For eighty-one years these friendly, exhuberant little birds have provided the musical backdrop to all else that signifies summer.

They were lovingly observed in Ohio in my childhood. Now we've lived just south of Spencer Butte for forty-nine years. Early on, there were a dozen pairs of house wrens nesting in tiny crevasses all around the buildings here: the pasture gate, an old abandoned outhouse, a wild rose thicket beyond the garden, the attic of the fruit house. Even old railroad ties now serving as fence posts, and having holes where spikes held them down, made suitable homes for these wee birds.

I wrote my first haiku several years ago to record their arrival:

The first wren of spring
cuts his joyous warble to
scold my intrusion.

In more recent years the number of them has dwindled significantly. A couple of years ago we had counted only two pairs when one evening I saw our family cat catch and eat a male wren. Thank goodness his mate found another male and proceeded to nest as usual.

Oregon house wrens winter in Mexico, and the bugs which constitute their major diet are zapped with pesticides by Mexican farmers. This is one reason fewer birds survive to return. I blamed Hurricane Mitch at least partly for their absence one spring. I even asked my daughter in Ohio to send me any Oregon wrens that had been blown to Florida by the hurricane and showed up in her yard that spring.

One year a renegade deer, that had found its way into our garden area, jumped into the fence trying to get out, and knocked the bird house off the fence post. The fledglings inside were spilled on the ground and lost. Their parents, bless them, hatched another brood once their house was restored to its proper location.

I love to sit on the deck on a summer evening and watch that perky little body checking around the flower boxes mere inches from my feet. This inspection is carried on between trilled declarations of enthusiasm from a nearby perch.

Checking my diary, I note that the wrens returned on April 22 in 1996 and April 25 in 1997. Today is MAY 27, 1998. Do you wonder that my face has been long and my ears aching for that familiar warble all this month?

As it turned out, that welcome harbinger of spring did not stay around to keep us entertained for the summer. In 2001, we had the happy experience of having the wrens come back. Actually there were two pairs that nested within the dooryard and garden area. It was May 2nd when I first heard the song, and sat on the deck in the sunshine to watch a pair checking out the birdhouse they've used in the past. Later that day as I weeded in the garden, I noted another pair checking the wren house on the garden fence, Each pair raised a brood. What fun it was to watch the fledglings strutting their stuff along the fence a few weeks later.

This report was started several years ago. It is now May of 2003. I've been watching daily for the wrens' return. Last year two pairs raised broods safely, as far as we observed, and they all took off for the southland in the fall. This has been a cool, rainy spring, and I've been allowing unusual weather conditions to delay my expectation of the harbinger, but now by May 10th, I feel "my" wrens may not have survived the hazards of winter in the south and this will be a bleak summer without those sprightly active small birds to cheer us on.

Monday this week, May 12, while I was hanging clothes on the line I heard a house wren scolding. Just one small scold, but unmistakable. Tuesday morning I went to look again, since I hadn't been able to spot the small bird the day before. Imagine my delight when I saw a PAIR exploring the wren house at the southeast corner of the house. It was apparently reasonable to allow a little extra time for their arrival due to the weather, and my summer is once more to be blessed by their small presence. Hallelulia!

Writer and historian
Lois Barton
Lois Barton is an 84 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil. Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

Visit the Sunnyside of Spencer Butte Section in our new format for more of Lois' stories. See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By online magazine's archives:

Visit the Heron Rookery

Sauerkraut and All That

Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?

The Midwife - The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.

The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.

Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

Books by Lois Barton

History and stories of the peoples of the Northwest.

© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By

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