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Desert Wildlife - Birds:

Cactus Wren

Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

The cactus wren is the largest North American wren, and is 18-23 cm (7-9 inches) long.
Unlike the smaller wrens, the Cactus Wren is easily seen. It has the loud voice characteristic of wrens, but its song is harsh and unmusical, and it is much less shy than most of the family. Its marked white eyestripe, brown head, barred wings and tail, and spotted tail feathers make it easy to identify.

The Cactus Wren is native to the south-western United States southwards to central Mexico. It is a bird of arid regions, and is often found around yucca, mesquite or saguaro; it nests in cactus plants, sometimes in a hole in a saguaro, sometimes where its nest will be protected by the prickly leaves of a cholla or yucca. It mainly eats insects, though it will occasionally take seeds or fruits. It rarely drinks water, getting its moisture from its food.

The Cactus Wren forms permanent pair bonds, and the pairs defend a territory where they live all through the year.

Life History Account

Cactus Wren
Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus
Family: Troglodytidae Order: Passeriformes Class: Aves


A locally common resident in the Mojave and Colorado deserts, north from the Mexican boundary to Inyo and Kern cos. Coastal race found in arid parts of westward-draining slopes from San Diego Co. northwest to Ventura Co.; numbers reduced in recent decades. Frequents desert cactus shrub, Joshua tree woodland, and desert wash habitats.


Feeding: Forages on ground and in low vegetation for insects, spiders, other small invertebrates, cactus fruits, other fruits, nectar, and seeds (Bent 1948, Anderson and Anderson 1973). Fruits make up 15-20% of annual diet; more than most U.S. wrens (Ehrlich et al. 1988). Foraging behavior often regulated by heat stress (Ricklefs and Hainsworth 1968), necessitating retreat from exposed sites into shade of shrubs and trees.

Cover: Thickets of xeric vegetation provide cover and thermal relief. Nest used as roost site (Anderson and Anderson 1957).

Reproduction: Nest usually built in cholla or other large, branching cactus, in yucca, or in stiff-twigged, thorny shrub or small tree. Nest is an intricate, woven cylinder, usually placed horizontally 1.2 to 1.5 m (4-5 ft) above the ground (Anderson and Anderson 1957).

Water: Drinks in winter (Anderson and Anderson 1963), but it is uncertain whether drinking water is required.

Pattern: Frequents deserts and other arid terrain with thickets, patches, or tracts of larger, branching cacti, stiff-twigged, thorny shrubs, and small trees (Grinnell and Miller 1944).


Activity Patterns: Yearlong, diurnal activity.

Seasonal Movements/Migration: Not migratory. Home Range: May be same as territory (Anderson and Anderson 1963).

Territory: Average territory was 1.9 ha (4.8 ac), varying from 1.2-2.8 ha (2.9-6.9 ac), in Arizona (Anderson and Anderson 1973). May maintain territory yearlong (Anderson and Anderson 1963).

Reproduction: Breeds from March into June. Clutch size 4-5, range 3-7 (Harrison 1978). Two broods per season is common. Incubation 15-18 days, by female (Anderson and Anderson 1960). Altricial nestlings fledge at 17-23 days, average 21 (Hensley 1959, Anderson and Anderson 1960). Young may return to roost in nest after fledging. Young become independent at about 1 mo after leaving nest; sometimes help feed young of later brood (Harrison 1978).

Niche: Anderson and Anderson (1963) listed domestic cats, roadrunners, snakes, and shrikes as predators of adults and nestlings. Austin et al. (1972) observed nestling predation by gopher snakes and whipsnakes. Frequent interactions with curve-billed thrashers reported by Anderson and Anderson (1963), including destruction of cactus wren roosting nests by thrashers.


Anderson, A. H., and A. Anderson. 1957. Life history of the cactus wren. Part I: Winter and pre-nesting behavior. Condor 59:274-296.

Anderson, A. H., and A. Anderson. 1960. Life history of the cactus wren. Part III: The nesting cycle. Condor 62:351-369.

Anderson, A. H., and A. Anderson. 1963. Life history of the cactus wren. Part IV: Competition and survival. Condor 65:29-43.

Anderson, A. H., and A. Anderson. 1973. The cactus wren. Univ. Arizona Press, Tucson. 226pp.

Austin, G. T., E. Yensen, and C. S. Tomoff. 1972. Snake predation on cactus wren nestlings. Condor 74:492.

Bent, A. C. 1948. Life histories of North American nuthatches, wrens, thrashers, and their allies. U.S. Natl. Mus. Bull. 195. 475pp.

Dawson, W. L. 1923. The birds of California. 4 Vols. South Moulton Co., San Diego. 2121pp.

Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder's handbook. Simon and Schuster, New York. 785pp.

Grinnell, J., and A. H. Miller. 1944. The distribution of the birds of California. Pac. Coast Avifauna No. 27. 608pp.

Harrison, C. 1978. A field guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of north American birds. W. Collins Sons and Co., Cleveland, OH. 416pp.

Hensely, M. M. 1959. Notes on the nesting of selected species of birds of the Sonoran Desert. Wilson Bull. 71:86-92.

Ricklefs, R. E., and F. R. Hainsworth. 1968. Temperature dependent behavior of the cactus wren. Ecology 49:227-233.

Small, A. 1974. The birds of California. Winchester Press, New York. 310pp.

California Department of Fish and Game

Cactus Wren
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