By Barbara Boyle
Althea Sherman had an intimate and complex relationship with the House wren. She studied the House wren for nearly thirty years, observing and recording all aspects of the bird, including feeding, courtship, breeding, nest life and the wren’s relationship with its own and other species of birds.
Miss Sherman’s journals indicate that her association with the House wren began peacefully enough. She maintained several bird boxes in her yard and plugged the entrance holes of unused boxes with corncobs to keep House sparrows out. Ever-watchful, Miss Sherman was aware when the House wren first visited her dooryard and observed as a male wren poked, pushed and dashed at the corncob, trying to gain entry. In her joumal, Miss Sherman wrote, “…If the House Wren has not been here before, how did it know a hole was there?” She then set about making or adapting, (with smaller entrance holes) six houses for the wrens.
The male wren attracted a mate and they raised the first family of wrens in the Sherman dooryard. Miss Sherman greatly enjoyed the perky song and the lively character of the species. She found them to be comically pompous and self-righteous, especially the males. In one journal entry she said, “Young hatched. Papa coming in for a great deal of scolding, apparently too clumsy to assist in feeding of young, although he had been permitted to feed Mama-Wren before the hatching. Sheepishly and somewhat nettled, he keeps guard over the box, possibly for want of better employment.” She later wrote of the mother, “A flock of 6 baby Wrens with a ruffled mother, scolding and busy, made the yard prohibitive. Anything in sight displeased her ladyship, who undoubtedly swelled up with the importance of presiding over so large a family. She scolded at anything or everything, even a passing automobile and the blowing of a distant factory whistle. Busy, but very happy, she led her flock about from bush to tree, never resting a minute until after putting them to bed, when she usually spent a little time feeding alone.”
It was not long until all the houses and still other cavities were filled with wrens. In the third season since their arrival Miss Sherman tallied in her journal that ten pairs of wrens were nesting on her property (and more yet in surrounding areas). Even with the conservative projections of five nestlings per pair, she estimated fifty wrens could be raised in her dooryard that season, and this did not include the likelihood of more than one brood. This did, however, allow much opportunity for study.
Regarding, behavior, she noted that the male wren bonds with the house more than with his mate. One male was recorded to outlive a succession of five mates in one season, maintaining the same house throughout. She wrote of the wide range of proclivities, such as polygamy, and skills of the wrens as parents. The males, she wrote, were often more talk than action. She recorded the practice of the female wren gathering her fledglings each evening at dusk and leading them to a roosting place where she would tuck them in and leave them for the night. This occurred in an abandoned catbird nest, a robin platform, a hanging basket and so on.
Miss Sherman was the first to report of females fighting to the death over mate and house. These battles would be lengthy, with great chasing, stalking, scolding, fanning of wings, and then determined and deadly attacks. They would clinch together and roll and plunge their beaks into each other until one or the other was driven off or killed. During these confrontations one or more males would sit atop their houses and sing.
The first indication of Miss Sherman’s distress is noted early in the fourth season with the entry, “The character of the Wren, the fact that I have seen it destroy Phoebe’s nest, also that it was the only species around to do the evil deed make me confident that it was the Wren that threw two Phoebe eggs out of its nest under the porch”. From that point on, Miss Sherman recorded all instances of despoiled nests, eggs and young, and the particular species she determined responsible. Regarding wrens, her observations led her to conclude that it was the male, and most likely the unmated males, that were so destructive to other species; the females reserving their destructive tendencies for each other. She recorded violations by several other species also, including the Blue jay, House sparrow, Bronzed grackle, Catbird, Cowbird, and European starling.
As a scientist dedicated to facts and truth, Miss Sherman conducted research using skins, including the head and bill, and House sparrow eggs, to determine the precise size and shape of holes made by forcing the various beaks against the eggs. From this research she could ascertain whether wrens (which never produced holes larger than 3 mm) or other birds were the culprits. As time went on, she indeed found the wren accountable for the vast majority of the destruction.
The dilemma was growing for Miss Sherman, who still found endearing qualities in the wren, as the following journal entry shows: “This afternoon I found four young wrens. They certainly are attractive and amusing little imps, with long dark down and open pale yellow mouths. They would be a joy if one could forget the evil of their grown up days. On July 21 I found the shell of the Blackbilled Cuckoo’s egg that had the small holes in it. The holes and the long narrow slits seem to prove that a Wren was the frightful devil that thrust its sharp bayonet into the egg.”
Miss Sherman also recorded the many species consistently ravaged by the House wren. Sadly, the list is long and was not made up only of other cavity-nesting birds, but seemed to include all species. She listed Phoebe, Eastern bluebird, Mourning dove, Black-billed and Yellow-billed cuckoos, Northern flicker, Downy and Hairy woodpeckers, White-breasted nuthatch, Song sparrow, Vesper sparrow, Chipping sparrow, Grasshopper sparrow, Bewick’s wren, Tufted titmouse, Black-capped chickadee, Catbird, Brown thrasher, Veery, Cardinal, Robin, Barn swallow, Purple martin, Baltimore oriole, Warbling vireo, Bobolink, Traills flycatcher, and Common yellowthroat. Even the Short-billed marsh wren (Sed-e wren), whose habitat was completely unlike that of the House wren, was not immune. “The song seems to be dying in the throat of the Short-billed Marsh Wren”, wrote Miss Sherman; and the species was harassed until it was driven off.
Althea Sherman pulled down her wren houses. The wrens then destroyed the families of Downy and Hairy woodpeckers, flickers, bluebirds, and others, securing the cavities for themselves and teaching Miss Sherman first hand of their propensity for retaliation. She fought for the rest of her life to reduce the numbers of House wrens breeding on her property. And she made it her mission to educate and inform others about the character of the House wren and the folly of erecting wren houses. She maintained that the countless boxes, assembled in nearly every school in the nation, given away at fairs and church socials, nailed up or hanging in almost every garden, farm and city, were providing an irreversible advantage to a species which, out of balance, lives at the expense of all other species in the area. A pair of House wrens in an acre may result in little or no distress to their own or other species. Five to ten pairs in that same area, however, can result in a profound alteration in the scheme of things, only to benefit an already hardy species that needs no such help.
“When Miss Althea Sherman’s paper on the House Wren was read before the Iowa Ornithological Union, at Ames, in 1924, it aroused such an incredulous protest that only her undisputed reputation as an accurate and seasoned bird student enabled her observations to receive the consideration that was their due.” This quote, from Bird-Lore May/June 1925, gives just a hint of the controversy which erupted when the same paper was published in that journal. In an attempt to educate, Miss Sherman, probably inadvertently, launched the “Great Wren Debate”, which played out on the pages of scientific, ornithological and the popular press for years to come. “The Problem of the House Wren” elicited heated responses and testimony from ordinary citizens through leading ornithologists. Articles had been published twenty years earlier regarding the destructive temperament of the House wren and these were recalled. Readers were admonished to consider these findings and to heed the warnings that learned men of science had offered two decades earlier. Indeed, Miss Sherman held herself accountable for not attending to these warnings when putting, up the wren boxes on her own property. Scores of observations and experiences with wrens were submitted and began to spill across the pages of Bird-Lore.
Some of the response was supportive of the House wren and disclaimed any destructive behavior. Some more clearly substantiated Miss Sherman’s position and went even further, with research results including bill hole measurements and banding, which proved that female wrens also destroyed other species’ eggs. Another article by Miss Sherman, entitled “Down With the House Wren Boxes” appeared in The Wilson Bulletin several months later and further fanned the flames, spreading the debate to other publications.
In preparation for her case, Miss Sherman had searched through 552 scientific and ornithological publications. In the last pages of her wren journal she included a bibliography containing 114 articles and not including her own vast research or the letters she received in response to her articles. Judging from letters which were published and from notations in her journals, the majority of written responses substantiated her findings and lauded her courage for exposing the truth and challenging the “sweet” reputation of “little Jenny Wren”.
The greater controversy, however, was an emotional one. Those who were entirely ignorant of the destructive tendencies of House wrens, or worse, those who admired the wren and would not allow their beliefs to be challenged, attacked Miss Sherman Her ornithological skills and observation techniques were challenged and criticized. She was ridiculed by some, lambasted on an emotional level and, profoundly worse, she was discounted by others. Where she was invited to speak before scientific societies, her research on other species was still valued, but her research on the House wren (which was equally comprehensive and thorough) was ignored or avoided.
Miss Sherman was a woman in a field solidly dominated by men. She was self-taught and she was dedicated, diligent, and proud. By this time in her life Althea Sherman had long ago achieved national and international acclaim and recognition as a respected scientist and, possibly more important, there was self-recognition for her decades of research and accomplishments. The emotional reaction by the public, and even by some of her peers, to an issue which she felt profoundly threatened the welfare of so many other species of songbirds stirred feelings of great sorrow and bitterness within her. In journal entries and letters to Margaret Morse-Nice, it is clear that she took these attacks personally, and resented them, but more importantly, she felt the ignorance and refusal to listen further doomed her efforts to protect other birds.
“Speaking for myself it must be confessed that I may have sinned against my small bird neighbors when, for purposes of study, there has been tolerance of two nestings each of Screech Owls and Sparrow Hawks [Kestrels]. But there is only one sin that causes constant mourning in sackcloth and ashes, that causes me to lie awake nights visioning the future condition of our country with its bird population consisting mainly of those undesirable aliens, the Starling, the English (House) Sparrow, together with the Grackles and the House Wrens: that sin was the putting up of bird houses and allowing, them to be occupied by House Wrens.”
-Althea R. Sherman Wilson Bulletin, September 1925..”Additional Evidence Against the House Wren”
Copies of the ‘Wren Debate” articles gathered to date are available from the Johnson County Songbird Project, 1320 Grabin Rd. NW, Oxford, IA 52322. 319-628-4824
The time frame of the above article was 1925 or before. The dire warnings of Althea Sherman and others are more significant now, some 70 years later. The House wren is everywhere, in open habitat where it was not previously found, and is still breeding in staggering numbers (5-12 eggs per brood, usually two and occasionally three broods per season). Wren boxes are everywhere, still the favored grade school project nationwide, and available at reasonable prices in stores everywhere. The House wrens fill most of the houses provided for them, and many, many more, displacing bluebirds, tree swallows, chickadees, titimice, woodpeckers, and more. The years between Miss Sherman’s observations and now have provided more opportunities to prove her theories and it is so. There is hardly a bluebirder anywhere who would not rail against the wren and tell stories of mayhem and sorrow. Any serious ‘birder’ or ‘lister’–one who seeks to locate and identify species–will confirm their countless numbers in all regions.
And the reluctance to believe the destructive behavior of House wrens is as prevalent today as in Miss Sherman’s time. Jenny Wren? No! There have been decades to study or even chance upon the materials available in regard to this species. Yet there is widespread ignorance. Is there unwillingness to look at the truth? To explore and share observations right here in our own backyards?
It is time to once again open up the “Great Wren Debate”. It is this writer’s opinion that House wrens not be allowed to nest in boxes, not be so overwhelmingly helped by humans, that the popularization of wren boxes in schools and elsewhere be stopped and that robin platforms be built instead. Maybe even more assertive steps should be taken.
The subject is a delicate one because there is such enjoyment of this little bird. But is there not enjoyment of the others too? And it is a sensitive area because the House wren is a protected species (should it be?) and it is Illegal to tamper. But are not all these houses a form of tampering?
We invite and encourage you to write (or call) and share your observations, experiences, evidence (pro & con), and feelings on this matter.
Althea R. Sherman on the House wren . . .
“If, when a felon is on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors he is confronted by numerous eye-witnesses who are trustworthy and fully competent to testify, if by their evidence it is proved that for upward of twenty-five years he has been seen committing the most flagrant crimes against his neighbors; if the depositions of these expert witnesses have been spread upon the public records and printed in volumes accessible to every one, it would appear that the public ought to demand for the good of our country that the felon be sentenced and that the sentence be executed without dangerous delay.” (1)
“By no means is it asked that the death penalty be exacted; instead of that drastic measure a mild sentence is urged – merely that the Wren boxes be taken down, thereby returning this Wren to the place in nature that he occupied before man’s interference destroyed the natural balance. In order that this restoration be not short-lived it is hoped there may come a true appreciation of his nature.” (2)
“As for injury done by the English [House] Sparrow, one would do better to choose twenty of these rather than one House Wren”. (3)
[In referring to an account given by a man] “…he does not say that two minus two leaves nothing, but I have the hardihood to say that it does: that two birds minus their two eggs leaves nothing for annual increase or’replacement; that this loss repeated year after year soon brings a species to the verge of extinction.” (4)
(In a letter to Margaret Morse-Nice in which Miss Sherman is railing, against an editor) (who) “…is quite free in quoting, my statements about other birds without branding them as ‘lies’ but when it comes to the House Wren, he tries to sit safely on the fence. Nothing has been proven’, is his elegant language. No one has seen his brain; how then can anyone prove that he has it?” (5)
“Since the Majority rules it would degree that an old lady of eighty or ninety years, who for sixty or seventy years has seen nothing blameworthy in her Wren, should not be discouraged from raising all the Wrens she can. But what about the old ladies, living on either side of her, who would like to have some other little birds, but cannot, because her Wrens drive them away? They are too old to combat with gun and trap the evil ones she insists on raising’. Surely others besides Wren breeders ought to have rights that are recognizable. An alcohol or drug addict injures himself mainly, but a Wren addict harms the entire neighborhood. (6)
1, 2, 3, & 4 Wilson Bulletin, March 1925. “Down With the House Wren Boxes” Althea R. Sherman.
5 Letter to Margaret Morse-Nice, Cornell University Archives
6 Wilson Bulletin, September 1925. “Additional Evidence Against the House Wren” Althea R. Sherman