Foam Lake Birding No. 152

No. 152
            In keeping with our California desert theme I decided to write about one of the most common and conspicuous of our desert birds, the Cactus Wren.  It is more of a true desert inhabitant than either the Black Phoebe or the Phainopepla discussed in the previous two articles, but still, it is often seen in the same locales as these two species. 
            I am rather fortunate in that I have seen eight of the nine species of wrens that occur in North America.  The odd thing is that the one species that I have not seen, the Sedge Wren, is found in the Foam Lake area.  Eight of the nine species of wrens are small chunky birds with short tails and the males of all eight sit on open perches and sing loudly claiming their territory.  The Cactus Wren is different in almost all ways from other members of its family.  First, it is a giant compared to the others being about halfway between a sparrow and robin in size.  Second, it is not a songster in any sense of the word.  Rather, it makes a kind of grunting or chugging sound as it forages.  An interesting characteristic is that it prefers to nest in the very dense and prickly Cholla Cactus which explains the origin of the bird’s name. 
            In terms of field marks it looks like a short tailed thrasher for which it is often mistaken.  That is, it is a mottled brown and white bird with a rather long down curved bill.  Its only distinguishing mark is a pronounced white eyebrow line.  Unlike thrashers the Cactus Wren is quite confiding and seems to like living close to man.  It is not uncommon to see one or several wrens running across a paved parking lot, penguin-like, chasing after something to eat.  Like thrashers they like to flip over dead leaves in order to expose something tasty.  Their primary food is insects but they will catch small lizards and literally beat them to death by swinging them against something hard like a rock, brick or pavement.  I have seen all of this take place within a few metres of where I was standing. 
            This week’s pictures were taken several years ago in two different places.  The photo of the lone wren was taken in Arizona; the photo of the Cactus Wren and Phainopepla sharing a snag was taken in California.  I included the second photo simply because I liked it.