Cactus Wrens are fairly large, conspicuous birds with a loud, monotonous, churring call. They are easily recognized by their heavily streaked and spotted plumage. They have a long white eye stripe, buff belly, dense black spots on the upper breast, black and white streaks and spots on the back and upper wings, and a long tail with black and white bars. Males and females look very similar.
Cactus Wrens are residents of arid habitats in the southwestern United States and Mexico. They are quite common in urban areas, especially in gardens and vacant lots with cacti and shrubs like jojoba and creosote. Males and females build large grass nests in cactus, especially chollas, shrubs or small trees. These birds have a long, slender, slightly curved bill and feed mostly on insects on the ground or near the ground in cactus or shrubs.
Cactus Wrens are members of the almost exclusively South and Middle American wren family, the Troglodytidae. This group consists of about 80 species of mostly small, brown birds.
Overview of Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus
Cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) is the Arizona State Bird. Characterized by the white eye stripe just behind each eye, heavily spotted dark brown and black throat and breast, and its wings and tail barred with black, white and brown feathers. It has an overall appearance of a creamy colored brown with black and white patterns covering its body. In addition, it also has a curved beak.
The cactus wren consist of many types of food such as fruit pulp, seeds, ants, grasshoppers, beetles, and other arthropods. It often finds its food by turning over rocks or other objects it finds on the ground in search of tasty morsels.
Common predators of the Cactus Wren are Coachwhips and other whipsnakes, which navigate their way through the cactus and often will take eggs or nestlings, while adult birds can be food for coyotes, hawks, fox, bobcats and domestic cats.
Found in the Sonoran Desert, southern California, southern Nevada, western Texas and southwest Utah, the cactus wren builds its nest in the shape of a football with an opening at one end. They will construct this nest out of grasses and other annual plants, but also have been known to include scraps of cloth and other woven fibers that they find. They typically will build their nest in cholla, but have also been seen building their nest in palo verde, acacias, saguaros, or the hanging pot in backyards.
The Cactus Wren is a permanent resident of arid and semi-arid desert regions of the southwestern United States, ranging from southern California, Nevada, and Utah, and central New Mexico and Texas, southward to central Mexico (Anderson 1973; Ricklefs 1968; McCarthy 2000).
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Global Range: Resident from southern California, south to southern Baja California, and northwestern Sinaloa, and from southern Nevada, southwestern Utah, western and south-central Arizona, southern New Mexico, and central Texas, south in the Mexican highlands to Michoacan, Mexico and Hidalgo. To 1800 m in New Mexico.
Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus, the largest wren in the United States, is 7-9 inches (17.8-22.9 cm) long. Sexes are similar, characterized by a long, slightly decurved bill, dark crown with a distinctive white stripe over the eye, white throat, gray-brown back streaked with white and black, and white to buff belly and sides, densely spotted at the breast. The wings and tail feathers are mostly black with white barring and the legs are dark. Juveniles resemble adults, but have fewer, lighter chest spots and a shorter tail (Anderson 1973; Udvardy 1994; McCarthey 2000; Gough 1998).
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Length: 22 cm
Weight: 39 grams
Differs from the sage thrasher in having a streaked back, heavily barred wings and tail, and a broad white eyebrow. No other U.S. wren has both a broad white eyebrow and a heavily spotted breast.
Colorado Plateau Shrublands Habitat
This taxon can be found in the Colorado Plateau shrublands, as one of its North American ecoregions of occurrence. The Plateau is an elevated, northward-tilted saucer landform, characterized by its high elevation and arid to semi-arid climate. Known for the Grand Canyon, it exhibits dramatic topographic relief through the erosive action of high-gradient, swift-flowing rivers that have downcut and incised the plateau. Approximately 90 percent of the plateau is drained by the Colorado River and its tributaries, notably the lower catchment of the Green River.
A pinyon-juniper zone is extensive, dominated by a pygmy forest of Pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) and several species of juniper (Juniperus spp). Between the trees the ground is sparsely covered by grama, other grasses, herbs, and various shrubs, such as Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) and Alder-leaf cercocarpus (Cercocarpus montanus).
A montane zone extends over large areas on the high plateaus and mountains, but is much smaller than the pinyon-juniper zone. The montane vegetation varies considerably, from Ponderosa pine in the south to Lodgepole pine and Aspen further north. Northern Arizona contains four distinct Douglas-fir habitat types. The lowest zone has arid grasslands but with many bare areas, as well as xeric shrubs and sagebrush. Several species of cacti and yucca are common at low elevations in the south.
Numerous mammalian species are found within the Colorado Plateau shrublands ecoregion, including the Black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus); Long-eared chipmunk (Tamias quadrimaculatus); Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens EN); Yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris); and the Uinta chipmunk (Tamias umbrinus), a burrowing omnivore.
A large number of birds are seen in the ecoregion, with representative taxa: Chestnut-collared longspur (Calcarius ornatus NT); Greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus NT); Northern pygmy owl (Glaucidium gnoma); Cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus).
There are various snakes occurring within the Colorado Plateau, including: Black-necked garter snake (Thamnophis cyrtopsis), usually found in riparian zones; Plains Blackhead snake (Tantilla nigriceps); Black-tailed rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), who seeks inactivity refuge in rock crevices, animal burrows and even woodrat houses. Other reptiles found here include the Common checkered whiptail (Cnemidophorus tesselatus).
There are only a limited number of anuran taxa on the Colorado Plateau; in fact, the comprehensive occcurrence list for the ecoregion is: Red-spotted toad (Anaxyrus punctatus); Canyon treefrog (Hyla arenicolor); Woodhouse's toad (Anaxyrus woodhousii); Couch's spadefoot toad (Scaphiopus couchii); Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens); Plains spadefoot toad (Spea bombifrons); and Southwestern toad (Anaxyrus microscaphus). The Tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) is the sole salamander found on the Colorado Plateau shrublands.
The Colorado River fish fauna display distinctive adaptive radiations. The Humpback chub (Gila cypha), for example, is a highly specialized minnow that lives in the upper Colorado. It adapted to the water’s fast current and its extremes of temperature and flow rate. Dams and water diversion, however, have created a series of placid, stillwater lakes and side streams, and the Humpback chub may not be able to adapt to these altered conditions. The species, along with other native Colorado River fishes including the Bonytail (Gila elegans), Squawfish (Ptychocheilus lucius), and the Flannelmouth sucker (Catostomus latipinnis), may not survive much further in time.
Chihuahuan Desert Habitat
This taxon is found in the Chihuahuan Desert, which is one of the most biologically diverse arid regions on Earth. This ecoregion extends from within the United States south into Mexico. This desert is sheltered from the influence of other arid regions such as the Sonoran Desert by the large mountain ranges of the Sierra Madres. This isolation has allowed the evolution of many endemic species; most notable is the high number of endemic plants; in fact, there are a total of 653 vertebrate taxa recorded in the Chihuahuan Desert. Moreover, this ecoregion also sustains some of the last extant populations of Mexican Prairie Dog, wild American Bison and Pronghorn Antelope.
The dominant plant species throughout the Chihuahuan Desert is Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata). Depending on diverse factors such as type of soil, altitude, and degree of slope, L. tridentata can occur in association with other species. More generally, an association between L. tridentata, American Tarbush (Flourensia cernua) and Viscid Acacia (Acacia neovernicosa) dominates the northernmost portion of the Chihuahuan Desert. The meridional portion is abundant in Yucca and Opuntia, and the southernmost portion is inhabited by Mexican Fire-barrel Cactus (Ferocactus pilosus) and Mojave Mound Cactus (Echinocereus polyacanthus). Herbaceous elements such as Gypsum Grama (Chondrosum ramosa), Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and Hairy Grama (Chondrosum hirsuta), among others, become dominant near the Sierra Madre Occidental. In western Coahuila State, Lecheguilla Agave (Agave lechuguilla), Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), Purple Prickly-pear (Opuntia macrocentra) and Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus pectinatus) are the dominant vascular plants.
Because of its recent origin, few warm-blooded vertebrates are restricted to the Chihuahuan Desert scrub. However, the Chihuahuan Desert supports a large number of wide-ranging mammals, such as the Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra americana), Robust Cottontail (Sylvilagus robustus EN); Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus), Grey Fox (Unocyon cineroargentinus), Jaguar (Panthera onca), Collared Peccary or Javelina (Pecari tajacu), Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus auduboni), Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus), Kangaroo Rats (Dipodomys sp.), pocket mice (Perognathus spp.), Woodrats (Neotoma spp.) and Deer Mice (Peromyscus spp). With only 24 individuals recorded in the state of Chihuahua Antilocapra americana is one of the most highly endangered taxa that inhabits this desert. The ecoregion also contains a small wild population of the highly endangered American Bison (Bison bison) and scattered populations of the highly endangered Mexican Prairie Dog (Cynomys mexicanus), as well as the Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus).
The Chihuahuan Desert herpetofauna typifies this ecoregion.Several lizard species are centered in the Chihuahuan Desert, and include the Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum); Texas Banded Gecko (Coleonyx brevis), often found under rocks in limestone foothills; Reticulate Gecko (C. reticulatus); Greater Earless Lizard (Cophosaurus texanus); several species of spiny lizards (Scelopoprus spp.); and the Western Marbled Whiptail (Cnemidophorus tigris marmoratus). Two other whiptails, the New Mexico Whiptail (C. neomexicanus) and the Common Checkered Whiptail (C. tesselatus) occur as all-female parthenogenic clone populations in select disturbed habitats.
Representative snakes include the Trans-Pecos Rat Snake (Bogertophis subocularis), Texas Blackhead Snake (Tantilla atriceps), and Sr (Masticophis taeniatus) and Neotropical Whipsnake (M. flagellum lineatus). Endemic turtles include the Bolsón Tortoise (Gopherus flavomarginatus), Coahuilan Box Turtle (Terrapene coahuila) and several species of softshell turtles. Some reptiles and amphibians restricted to the Madrean sky island habitats include the Ridgenose Rattlesnake (Crotalus willardi), Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (C. pricei), Northern Cat-eyed Snake (Leptodeira septentrionalis), Yarrow’s Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus jarrovii), and Canyon Spotted Whiptail (Cnemidophorus burti).
There are thirty anuran species occurring in the Chihuahuan Desert: Chiricahua Leopard Frog (Rana chircahuaensis); Red Spotted Toad (Anaxyrus punctatus); American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus); Canyon Treefrog (Hyla arenicolor); Northern Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans); Rio Grande Chirping Frog (Eleutherodactylus cystignathoides); Cliff Chirping Frog (Eleutherodactylus marnockii); Spotted Chirping Frog (Eleutherodactylus guttilatus); Tarahumara Barking Frog (Craugastor tarahumaraensis); Mexican Treefrog (Smilisca baudinii); Madrean Treefrog (Hyla eximia); Montezuma Leopard Frog (Lithobates montezumae); Brown's Leopard Frog (Lithobates brownorum); Yavapai Leopard Frog (Lithobates yavapaiensis); Western Barking Frog (Craugastor augusti); Mexican Cascade Frog (Lithobates pustulosus); Lowland Burrowing Frog (Smilisca fodiens); New Mexico Spadefoot (Spea multiplicata); Plains Spadefoot (Spea bombifrons); Pine Toad (Incilius occidentalis); Woodhouse's Toad (Anaxyrus woodhousii); Couch's Spadefoot Toad (Scaphiopus couchii); Plateau Toad (Anaxyrus compactilis); Texas Toad (Anaxyrus speciosus); Dwarf Toad (Incilius canaliferus); Great Plains Narrowmouth Toad (Gastrophryne olivacea); Great Plains Toad (Anaxyrus cognatus); Eastern Green Toad (Anaxyrus debilis); Gulf Coast Toad (Incilius valliceps); and Longfoot Chirping Toad (Eleutherodactylus longipes VU). The sole salamander occurring in the Chihuahuan Desert is the Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum).
Common bird species include the Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), Merlin (Falco columbarius), Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), and the rare Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus). Geococcyx californianus), Curve-billed Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostra), Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata), Scott’s Oriole (Icterus parisorum), Black-throated Sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata), Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens), Worthen’s Sparrow (Spizella wortheni), and Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus). In addition, numerous raptors inhabit the Chihuahuan Desert and include the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) and the Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi).
The Cactus Wren is common throughout the southwestern United States. This arid desert, dominated by cholla and other succulent cacti and spiny trees and shrubs, is characterized by high temperatures, low humidity, and scarce water. Arid hillsides and valleys will also be used. The Cactus Wren is generally found below 4,000 feet, although it is found at elevations up to 6,000 feet in areas of New Mexico. They are common even in urban areas planted with native desert vegetation (Anderson 1973; Ricklefs 1968; McCarthey 2000).
Terrestrial Biomes: desert or dune
Habitat and Ecology
Comments: Desert (especially with cholla cactus or yucca), mesquite, arid scrub, coastal sage scrub, and in trees in towns in arid regions (Tropical to Subtropical zones) (AOU 1983). Nests in OPUNTIA cactus, or in twiggy, thorny, trees and shrubs, sometimes in buildings. Nest may be relined and used as a winter roost.
Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
The Cactus Wren primarily eats insects, including ants, beetles, grasshoppers, and wasps. Occasionally, it will take seeds and fruits. Foraging begins late in the morning and is versatile; the cactus wren will search under leaves and ground litter and overturn objects in search of insects, as well as feeding in the foliage and branches of larger vegetation. Increasing temperatures cause a shift in foraging behavior to shady and cooler microclimates, and activity slows during hot afternoon temperatures. Almost all water is obtained from food, and free standing water is rarely used even when found (Udvardy 1994; Ricklefs 1968; McCarthey 2000).
Comments: Feeds on insects (beetles, ants, wasps, bugs, grasshoppers) and spiders. Occasionally eats small lizards and tree frogs. Also eats fruit (cactus, elderberries, cascara berries) and some seeds. Often forages on ground; also in Joshua trees.
Known prey organisms
Based on studies in:
USA: Arizona, Sonora Desert (Desert or dune)
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
- P. G. Howes, The Giant Cactus Forest and Its World: A Brief Biology of the Giant Cactus Forest of Our American Southwest (Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, New York; Little, Brown, Boston; 1954), from pp. 222-239, from p. 227.
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Status: wild: 6.3 (high) years.
Status: wild: 76 months.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
The breeding habitat of the Cactus Wren is successional scrub. Nesting occurs on well defined and defended territories, which are occupied most of the year. The females select a nest site high in native thorny trees and shrubs, showing a preference for cholla cacti. Nest building has also been observed in non-native trees and shrubs as well as in non-thorny native plants, though it is not known if these are only used for roosting purposes. Both the male and female help build the large spherical nest of dry grasses, often lined with feathers. Nests are protected from predators by having only a narrow side entrance and the substrate armature. Breeding begins in late February or early March and continues through June. Clutches consist of 4-5 buff colored eggs, speckled with brown. The female incubates the first clutch for approximately 16 days, beginning with the first egg laid, while the male builds secondary nests and defends the territory. Both parents feed the young and fledging occurs at 19-23 days. After fledging, young continue to stay in the parent's territory for about a month, sleeping in roosting nests; this post-fledgling care is long compared to most temperate-zone passerines. Additional nests, built by the males, can be used to rear second, sometimes third, broods. Clutch size, clutch survival, and additional reproductive behavior are often limited by food availability; fluctuating brood size appears to be an advantageous adaptation to unpredictable desert environments and food availability (Anderson 1973; Ricklefs 1975; Ricklefs 1968; Gough 1998; MacCarthey 2000; Simons and Martin 1990; Farley and Stuart 1994).
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous
Average time to hatching: 16 days.
Average eggs per season: 4.
Clutch size is 3-7 (usually 3-5). Incubation lasts 15-18 days. Young are tended by both parents, leave nest in about 21 days (Harrison 1978). Two to three broods per year. Nesting success and timing of breeding may vary annually (Marr and Raitt 1983).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus
Public Records: 6
Specimens with Barcodes: 8
Species With Barcodes: 1
The Cactus Wren is common throughout its range and is not considered threatened or endangered though it is protected, along with all songbirds, by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Their native habitat is not considered threatened and the Cactus Wren also does well in urban areas planted with native species. There are no immediate management needs (McCarthey 2000).
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
No information is available on negative impacts.
The Cactus Wren disperses potentially important semi-arid rangeland plants through the material used in building nests; viable seeds can be spread over long distances in this manner (Milton et al. 1998).
The cactus wren is the largest North American wren, at 18–23 cm (7.1–9.1 in) long. Unlike the smaller wrens, the cactus wren is easily seen. It has the loud voice characteristic of wrens. The cactus wren 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. Like most birds in its genus, it has a slightly curved bill. There is little sexual dimorphism.
The cactus wren primarily eats insects, including ants, beetles, grasshoppers, and wasps. Occasionally, it will take seeds, fruits, small reptiles and frogs. Foraging begins late in the morning and is versatile; the cactus wren will search under leaves and ground litter and overturn objects in search of insects, as well as feeding in the foliage and branches of larger vegetation. Increasing temperatures cause a shift in foraging behavior to shady and cooler microclimates, and activity slows during hot afternoon temperatures. Almost all water is obtained from food, and free-standing water is rarely used even when found (Udvardy 1994; Ricklefs 1968; McCarthey 2000).
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 cactus spines of a cholla or leaves of a yucca.
In residential areas, cactus wrens are notorious for getting into mischief. Being curious birds, it is not uncommon for these wrens to be found flying about out-of-place in automobiles where the owner has left a window open or it may even enter homes with an open door or window and find itself trapped.
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Has been treated as conspecific with C. YUCATANICUS by some authors (AOU 1998). May constitute a superspecies with C. JOCOSUS, C. YUCATANICUS, and C. GULARIS (AOU 1998). See Rea (1990) for a detailed discussion of cactus wren subspecies.