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Winter Wren
Troglodytes hiemalis
– Family
Authors: Hejl, Sallie J., Jennifer A. Holmes, and Donald E. Kroodsma

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Adult Winter Wren, NY State, April
Figure 1. Distribution of the Winter Wren.
Editor’s Note: The Winter Wren discussed in this account (T. troglodytes) has recently been split into 3 species, with T. pacificus (Pacific Wren) and T. hiemalis (Winter Wren) the 2 North American species. See the 51st Supplement to the American Ornithologists Union Checklist of North American Birds, and references therein, for details. Future revisions of this account will reflect these changes.

It is the Winter Wren, chiefly, which gladdens the depths of the ancient forest with music.

Dawson (1923: 681)

The Winter Wren creeps mouse-like around the forest floor, next to, into, and out of large logs and other tangles, and sings loudly from favorite perches. A superb songster, and more often heard than seen, this small, brown, cryptically colored wren generally inhabits dark, moist conifer forests in North America, although some breed in hardwoods or on cliff faces on treeless islands.

The Winter Wren is found throughout temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere (Holarctic distribution) and is the only wren species found outside of the Americas. From 35 to 43 subspecies are recognized across the entire range in North America, Eurasia, and northern Africa. Patterns of vocalizations suggest more than 1 species may exist within the Winter Wren as currently defined.

This species is unique among North American wrens in its association with old-growth forests. It uses old-growth structures (snags, downed logs, and large trees) for nesting, foraging, and roosting. Clearcutting and some types of partial logging reduce habitat suitability for the Winter Wren, and it is one of a few species clearly harmed by forest fragmentation in western North America. In contrast, some European populations inhabit highly human-modified habitats year-round and are known as garden birds.

Winter Wren numbers have declined since presettlement times in western North America (47% decline in northwestern California; Raphael et al. 1988). Current broad scale population trends indicate stable or increasing populations, but these trend estimates might not capture changes due to forest-management practices for this interior-forest bird, particularly in western forests. Partners in Flight groups are concerned about Winter Wrens in Washington, Oregon, Montana, and the southern Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains owing to the negative effects of logging and fragmentation and the associations of this species with complex forest floors and rare community types.

Thorough studies have been conducted on the Winter Wren in North America, including: Rice et al. 1999 on systematics; Kroodsma 1980 and Van Horne 1995 on song; McLachlin 1983, Sabo and Holmes 1983, Holmes and Robinson 1988, and Van Horne and Bader 1990 on food habits; Heath 1920, Bent 1948, McLachlin 1983, Waterhouse 1998, and Willson and Gende 2000 on breeding biology, behavior, and habitat use; and numerous community studies examining the effects of timber harvesting on Winter Wrens, especially Rosenberg and Raphael 1986, Lehmkuhl et al. 1991, Hejl and Paige 1994, McGarigal and McComb 1995, and Hutto and Young 1999 . Current studies include K. Barker’s on systematics of the wrens, and others by T. De Santo and M. Willson, R. Sallabanks, and SJH and JAH on breeding biology and forest practices in western forest ecosystems.

This account stresses information about Winter Wrens in North America. European literature is used to supplement North American data where information from North America is lacking or where differences have been found. Several excellent sources about the wren in Europe are: Kluijver et al. 1940; Armstrong 1955; Armstrong and Whitehouse 1977; Garson 1978, 1980a, 1980b, and 1980c; Wesolowski 1981, 1983, and 1987; and Cramp 1988 .