A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Wrentits are a contradiction. They're usually shy, secretive birds. Yet, they seem to have a streak of curiosity in them, and not infrequently they'll allow an approach of just a few feet before flying off. Sometimes they'll flit about near an observer, apparently trying to see what the bird watcher is up to--or they'll scold quite boldly from a nearby perch. For the most part, however, they are skulkers, hiding in shrubs and brush, more often heard than seen. The "bouncing ball" song--a string of notes with diminishing intervals, like the sound of a ball dropped and allowed to come to rest--is distinctive and similar only to certain vocalizations by California Towhee (Melozone crissalis). Both sexes sing, the male using a faster rhythm ending in a trill, the female omitting the trill. Usually solitary or in pairs. Known to avoid singing at the same time as Bewick's Wren (Thyromanes bewickii).

Wrentits like brushy areas and heavy undergrowth or thickets. Found in such settings near the coast and inland. Forms very tight, life-long pair bonds. Wrentits stay in and protect small territories and nest in the same spot year after year. They do not migrate. Eats insects and spiders, but also berries when available (fond of poison oak berries in the winter). Forages in brush rather than on the ground. Breeds in most of the county, excluding the southern marshy areas and the Santa Rosa plain, both areas lacking the bird’s preferred habitat. Limited geographical range as well. Present mainly in western parts of California and Oregon, with a range extending a little into Washington State at the northern extreme and into Baja California in the south. Four subspecies are recognized, two said to be present in the Bay Area--C. fasciata rufula and C. fasciata fasciata. According to Lukas, C. f. rufula lives along the coast south into Marin County, C. f. fasciata lives elsewhere in the Bay Area. I can find no information about what differentiates these two subspecies, however. Field guides show C. f. phaea as the northern variety (presumably the birds living as far north as Washington) and C. f. henshawi as the subspecies of the southernmost populations. As a general rule, the northern populations are supposed to be browner, the southern populations greyer, but the two birds shown on this page were photographed in Sonoma County within a few feet of each other, and the bird in the photo above is quite warm in color, while the bird in the photo below is mostly grey. The bird at the top of this page looks very much like the C. f. phaea example in National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (6th ed.), the bird in the photo below like the C. f. henshawi example in that book--which is to say that Sonoma County birds appear to be rather variable and may look like any of the illustrations in the major field guides, setting aside the question of what subspecies they actually are. Note that the illustration in Birds of Northern California is much too uniformly brown, and quite misleading.

The Wrentit is neither a wren nor a tit (British English for a chickadee). Its taxonomic status has long been debated and remains unsettled. The current wisdom is that our Wrentit is most closely related to the old world warblers (family Sylviidae), making it the only American species of the "true" or sylviid warblers. Until recently, it was widely placed in the family Timaliidae, which made it the only American representative of the old world babblers. Whatever a Wrentit is, it's not closely related to any of our other birds, despite its superficial resemblance to tits and certain wrens--the sources of the bird's name. (Visually, the most similar-looking bird I've personally seen is the Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata), observed at Montserrat, in Spain--a sylviid warbler, although the resemblance may be an example of convergent evolution rather than evidence of a true relationship).

Looks like an overgrown Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) with a head somewhat too big for its body, a fat neck, and a long, ragged tail. Small, beady eye with pale iris. Pointed bill for gleaning insects. Mostly greyish brown, but color can be quite variable, as noted above. Usually paler and greyer at the head and somewhat paler and buffy at the throat and upper breast (some birds tending toward pink there). Usually shows faint streaking at upper breast as well, but streaking can be hard to see in the field. Slight pale spot above the eye is an oft-missed field mark.Tail is proportionately long, often held cocked, like a wren. Tail has a ragged look. Perhaps most likely to be mistaken for a Bushtit, but Bushtit is a much smaller, daintier bird that usually travels in noisily twittering flocks. 

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 98

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 344

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 136

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 334

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 388

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 505-506

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 420

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 303

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 363

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 292

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 224-225

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 57

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 282

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 266

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 335

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 569

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 454

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Wrentit



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Wrentit, Ragle Ranch Park, Sebastopol, October 15, 2012

Wrentit, Ragle Ranch Park, Sebastopol, October 15, 2012

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 23, 2013

EBird reported  occurrence in Sonoma County


Chamaea fasciata