Species Spotlight: Cactus Wren, Listen Before You Look

Dec 20, 2023 | MSHCP, Species

The American Southwest, known for its beautiful deserts and sprawling cities, is also home to the cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus), the final entry in the 2023 Species Spotlight series. Designated as the official bird of neighboring Arizona, the cactus wren is also a local resident of western Riverside County and one of 45 bird species protected by the MSHCP.

The cactus wren is a bold, curious, and entertaining supersized wren. Recognized as the largest wren species in the Country, the cactus wren boasts distinctive features, including a length of 7 to 9 inches, a long, rounded tail, and a robust bill ideal for foraging on the ground and in low vegetation. Their diet is comprised of insects, small invertebrates, cactus fruits, seeds, nectar, and this bird plays a vital role in the desert ecosystem. The cactus wren could easily go unnoticed as its speckled brown feathers and heavy white streaks blends in well with desert and arid landscapes. However, it has an affinity for making their presence known at all hours of the day by posturing and singing atop desert trees and shrubs with their harsh rasping voice that is likened to the sound of trying to start a car.

Cactus wrens may mate for life and pairs greet each other with a display of wings and tail, perching upright and calling harshly. They typically nest on branching cactus in yucca or other stiff-twigged, thorny shrubs or small trees. Both sexes build a bulky football shaped mass of weeds and grasses prepped for 2-5 pale pink, heavily spotted eggs. After a short incubation period of 15-18 days, their young fledge and leave the nest, but may remain for about a month on their parents’ territory.

Characterized as a low-flying bird, the cactus wren is not a strong flyer and does not migrate like other bird species. It tends to stay local here in Riverside County or in other southwest regions of the Country. In western Riverside County, the wren’s ideal habitat includes thickets of coastal sage scrub and relies on cacti for nesting, breeding, and foraging. Under the MSHCP, essential habitats like coastal sage scrub are identified for conservation in effort to protect species like the cactus wren. However, urban and agricultural expansion pose significant threats to cactus wren habitats, particularly when cacti and desert shrubs are lost. The cactus wren also contends with many predators, including domestic cats, roadrunners, snakes, and loggerhead shrikes.

Loss of habitat creates isolated areas, making them vulnerable to predators due to their limited travel. To facilitate their movement, especially during wildland fires, wildlife linkages become critical. Notably, an overhead wildlife crossing was constructed as part of the Clinton Keith Road Extension project. These types of wildlife crossings aids wrens and other low-flying species like the Quino checkerspot butterfly in traversing between areas.

Get your bird-watching binoculars ready! In western Riverside County, you may be able to spot, or hear first, rather, the cactus wren along the eastern flank of the Santa Ana Mountains, Corona, Lake Perris reserve, Temecula area, desert transition area, the Badlands, and various other regions.