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Rock Wren
Salpinctes obsoletus
– Family
Authors: Lowther, Peter E., Donald E. Kroodsma, and Greg H. Farley

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Adult Rock Wren, Wyoming, July
Figure 1. Distribution of the Rock Wren.

Salpinctes obsoletus is a very plain name for a bundle of fire known as the rock wren. It is heard, up on the bluffs, up in the rocks, but it is seen only by those who climb the bluffs regularly, and then it is seen only irregularly. . . . After reading even the most elementary writings of the rock wren I am shocked at society’s ignorance of this birdJanovy 1978: 45, 49.

Rock, song, mystery: essence of Rock Wren.

Rock. The Rock Wren is well named. Most descriptions of Rock Wren habitat mention “rock” for this pale wren of arid, western North America. Still, these wrens are also found in nonrocky habitats, as long as there exist areas “rich in crevices, interstices, passageways, recesses, and nooks and crannies of diverse shapes and sizes” (Ryser 1985: 410).

Song. These wrens are more easily heard than seen. Rock Wren songs are unmistakable, but beauty lies in the ears of the listener. According to Florence M. Bailey (1904a: 444; see also Bent 1948: 290), the Rock Wren’s song “. . . at first hearing seems the drollest, most unbird-like of machine-made tinklings,” but William L. Dawson (1923: 685; see also Bent 1948: 290) considered this wren’s songs to be “the sprightliest, most musical, and resonant to be heard in the entire West.” Even to Mrs. Bailey, however, this wren redeems itself, as the song “ . . . comes to be greeted as the voice of a friend on the desert, and its quality to seem in harmony with the hard, gritty granites among which he lives” (Bailey 1904a: 444). Males are truly remarkable singers and can have large song repertoires of 100 or more song types, many of which seem to be learned from neighbors (Kroodsma 1975).

Mystery. Rock Wrens have been little studied and most information about the biology of this species is anecdotal. One curious aspect of this wren’s biology has received much notice but virtually no study: Rock Wrens usually build a pavement or walkway of small, flat stones or pebbles that leads to the nest cavity. The nest is usually located in a rock crevice, occasionally far out of sight, but the pavement may give an external sign of the nest’s location. The function of this pavement is open to speculation.

Published information on this species is meager. Recent published work includes Merola’s (1995) observations of 6 color-marked nesting pairs in New Mexico. Wolf et al. (1985) recorded detailed observations for 1 day at 1 nest in California.