A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Gayle Pille: Good neighbors being good neighbors — also welcome the Carolina Wrens to mailboxes

Some folks have all the luck. Shelly Sandfoss of Fort Wright recently had the pleasure of watching and photographing Carolina Wrens out her front door, not in a tree, or shrub, or hanging planter – but in her mailbox. Stop all mail delivery and roll out the welcome mat.

This isn’t a first for Shelly. Every year she leaves her mailbox lid open spring through fall in case a Carolina Wren, or any bird for that matter, needs a place to raise its young. “I write a letter to the postman alerting him to the fact that we have guests in the mailbox and to please leave the mail on the table,” said Shelly. For Shelly, an avid backyard birder and photographer, it’s a chance to photograph and see nature up close and personal. And Carolina Wrens, with oodles of personality, are downright entertaining to watch.

Carolina Wrens are the only wren species found in Northern Kentucky year-round. They are the largest, about six-inches, and most common wrens found in the eastern U.S. They are non-migratory and can be severely impacted by very harsh winters, when their numbers can plummet. These lively rusty-brown birds have seemingly boundless energy.

Perhaps no one can best describe the Carolina Wren than artist and naturalist John James Audubon (1785-1851): “The quickness of the motions of this active little bird is fully equal to that of a mouse. Like the latter, it appears and is out of sight in a moment, peeps into a crevice, passes rapidly through it, and shews itself at a different place the next instant. When satiated with food, or fatigued with these multiplied exertions, the little fellow stops, droops its tail, and sings with great energy a short ditty something resembling the words come-to-me, come-to-me, repeated several times in quick succession, so loud, and yet so mellow, that it is always agreeable to listen to them. During spring, these notes are heard from all parts of the plantations, the damp woods, the swamps, the sides of creeks and rivers, as well as from the barns, the stables and the piles of wood, within a few yards of the house. Their chirr-up and come-to-me, come-to-me seldom cease for more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a time, commencing with the first glimpse of day, and continuing sometimes after sunset.”

Carolina Wrens four days old. (Photos by Shelly Sandfoss)

Carolina Wrens are very much defined by their song, one of the loudest songs per volume of any bird. What Audubon described as “come-to-me, come-to-me,” is now more frequently described as “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle.” Only the male sings. One captive male Carolina Wren sang nearly 3,000 times in a single day. Interestingly, Carolina Wrens in the north sing more slowly than those in the south.

Carolina Wrens are still as adaptable as when first described by Audubon nearly 200 years ago. Global warming, a threat to many birds, has probably helped Carolina Wrens, as they have significantly expanded their range since the early 1900’s. They mate for life and can be found in suburban areas, the country, deep woodlands, and parks. They are much more likely to be found nesting in a hanging planter or other ornamental fixture (or mailbox) than in a birdhouse. Nests can be located one to ten-feet off the ground and are bulky, often domed-shaped structures with a small hole towards the top. Females usually lay four to six eggs. If conditions are right, the same nest may be used more than once.

A fledgling

Incubation lasts for 12 to 14 days, with the fledglings leaving the nest another 12 to 14 days after hatching. Both parents will feed and stay with the young another 2 weeks before they’re on their own. If the young survive their first year, they’ll have a life expectancy of six years. Carolina Wrens feed on insects, larvae, spiders, fruit, and berries. They will occasionally visit bird feeders and have even been known to eat tree frogs.

Like any good neighbor, Shelly’s door is always open. It’s not uncommon for human neighbors to stop by for a cup of sugar or flour; or for avian neighbors to borrow a mailbox or hanging planter. Shelly’s always there – for all of them.


Gayle Pille is a local naturalist and nature writer who many know through her work to establish the five-mile network of nature trails at Highland Cemetery in Ft. Mitchell. She created the cemetery’s popular 25-year-old Wildlife Enhancement Program and works with a small team of volunteers to maintain the cemetery’s wooded walking paths. An avid birdwatcher, Gayle also builds custom wildlife nest boxes for businesses, parks and residences through her business, www.woodlandhabitat.com

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  1. Ginger Rood says:

    Great article about these adorable little bundles of energy. Thank you Shelly Sandfoss, for being such a great and welcoming neighbor to these tiny birds. They are among my favorites and I have the joy of seeing them year round as they will sneak into my open garage and find my huge tubs of meal worms. One year two winter residents even raised a family in February on a shelf in the garage. Why not? All the food you need, nice warm weather and even a bird bath set up for them. I over winter a lime tree in the garage and the Wrens thought it was put there especially for them.

  2. Shelly Sandfoss says:

    Always a pleasure to read what Gayle has to share. The Nature Lady for sure. If she doesn’t know the answer to your nature question, she’ll get back to you once she’s done her homework.

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