Watching the birds would be just the way to brighten the days while riding out the novel coronavirus pandemic at home.
All was going as planned until a few days ago, when some house sparrows and a woodpecker began pestering the wrens — perching on their house, blocking their entrance.
There were reports of similar encounters on various birdwatching blogs, with some ending badly.
“A House Sparrow Killed My Wren,” read the headline on a story posted by Jennifer on wild-bird-watching.com. She wrote that a sparrow began blocking the entrance to her wren house and that her husband had seen the birds squabbling.
“Later that day we were shocked and saddened to find the wren on the ground dead under his house,” she wrote.
Other sites contained gruesome accounts of woodpeckers massacring nests of baby doves.
I thought exploring nature was supposed to provide an escape. And yet, in my own backyard, it turns out, there’s both mischief and majesty around the bird feeder, just like everywhere else.
I shared my concern for the safety of the wrens with Robert Whitescarver, a natural resources blogger and expert birder who lives in the Shenandoah Valley. He advised me to make sure that the opening to the wren house was large enough for the occupants but too small for the sparrows.
“I’ve seen bluebird houses where the opening was just a tad too large,” Whitescarver said. “A house sparrow will get in there, whether it’s a chickadee or a tree swallow, murder the adult and build a nest over the dead body.”
On the bright side, Whitescarver said, the Washington area is expected to reach the peak of the spring bird migration by Mother’s Day. About 60 percent of the migratory birds will have arrived. They’ll nest, raise their young, then head south for winter.
“You can just hear them singing their hearts out,” he said.
House wrens are among the best singers, but they are hardly more popular than house sparrows. They are small, brown and fearless. When a fat, red-orange-headed woodpecker (called a red-bellied woodpecker, even though the belly is white) poked its beak into the wren house, the female waiting to enter dropped her twig and attacked.
Alison Pearce, director of restoration for the Audubon Naturalist Society, suggested I not fret too much about the intruders and take comfort in having provided more habitat for the wrens.
“Whether we see it or not, wildlife is out there searching and competing for scarce resources,” she said. “In our suburban and urban environments, there is less and less of what they need. So the more we can put back, the more life we can support.”
After all the hard work they put into raising the brood, the couple split when the job is done and go off to find new partners.
The wrens in my birdhouse apparently arrived about two weeks ago. They are tiny, about the weight of two quarters. They look like they could barely fly across a street, let alone multiple state lines.
Sometimes, they’ll return to the birdhouse with an unwieldy, oddly shaped twig. They shouldn’t be able to hold it, let alone fly with it. Then the two of them work together to maneuver the twig into the house.
If all goes well, they’ll produce a batch of babies in a few weeks — naked and helpless hatchlings. They’ll care for their offspring. And the babies will fledge. Then it’ll be showtime.
The newbies will make their debut — out of the house, and there will be no going back.
“You might find fledglings on the ground, in the bush,” Pearce told me. “They are clumsy and may be struggling. But wait and observe. Don’t rush to pick it up, because usually the parents are nearby and are still feeding them.”
She added, “We all know not every fledgling makes it, and that’s how the world works.”
I’ll be rooting for every one of them.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.