As near as I can tell, the small, plump bird that showed up under my feeders in early November was hundreds of miles from home. The bird had a pouter pigeon shape and warm cinnamon-colored feathers, with a dramatic white line above its eyes, making him stand out from the usual birds in the backyard.
It definitely was not a bird that regularly dwells in Minnesota.
Most of us would have guessed that it was a wren, with its long deeply cocked tail, just like a house wren. It had a "spunky" attitude, hopping assertively around on the ground, not moving away when bigger birds, like blue jays, landed nearby.
A field guide to birds confirmed that this was a Carolina wren, more at home in the southeastern United States than in St. Paul. To compare it with wrens we normally see, a Carolina wren is 5½ inches long, while a house wren runs 4¾ inches, a discernible size difference.
What was this bird doing here, so far out of its normal range? According to the Nature Conservancy on its Cool Green Science site, this species advances and recedes over the years depending on the severity of the winters. This habit is costly in severe winters, when "pushy" wrens simply die off, but well-stocked feeders help them stay alive.
I checked the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union (MOU) website and found that there have been dozens and dozens of Carolina wrens reported in Minnesota since the 1920s, most in fall and winter. So a Carolina wren isn't entirely unique but it's rare enough to cause some excitement among birders.
It's an unstated protocol in the world of bird-watching that if an unexpected bird shows up — either appearing in the wrong season or in an unusual geographic area — it should be shared with other bird watchers, either via a local listserv, such as the MOU's, or the eBird database (see below).
In late November, I reported it to eBird, whose monitor deliberated a bit before accepting the presence of this far-from-home bird.
Then the fun started: I began receiving e-mails asking permission to come over to view the wren, and my policy was that everyone was welcome. For the next month people showed up each day to stand at the top of my driveway to watch for the wren. This was cold work but most were rewarded for their patience — small crowds of humans didn't daunt the bird.
And then, after the first of the year, many of the same people asked to make another visit: They'd recorded the bird on their 2018 list and now wanted to add it to their 2019 list. Such is the world of birding.
One cold January day I watched a frightening tableau in the backyard: a Cooper's hawk had just missed a junco and was standing on the ground, waiting for another small bird to appear, just as the wren flew in for some suet and peanut bits. Instead of high-tailing it to safety, the wren perched out in the open, flicking its tail and making "chip" sounds at the predator. The hawk was very aware of the wren, and I was sure this would be the end. But no, after a few minutes each bird just flew on its separate way.
The wren was still flying in for almost hourly visits in late January, allowing me to hope he'd survive to see spring.
But the plucky Carolina wren disappeared sometime during the winter, probably after a brutal cold spell at the end of January. These birds aren't built for a typical Minnesota winter, and can only survive if the weather cooperates.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at email@example.com.
The eBird story
With more than 100 million bird sightings added each year, eBird is used by scientists, researchers, bird watchers and amateur naturalists to learn more about bird distribution and abundance.
Anytime a report is made to eBird, it becomes part of a global database that is revolutionizing birding and our knowledge about bird movements. It's one of the largest data resources in the world and is open to everyone to participate in or to search for information.
Go to https://ebird.org/science/barswa to see how reported sightings of barn swallows create an elegant, moving map of this species' spring and fall movements. The eBird database can provide such mapping for every species in the world; just click on "Explore" to search.