A Noisy Neighbor and a Quiet One: Tales of the Carolina Wren and the Lilac

Busy-body Wrens

Carolina Wrens are the most persnickety and opinionated birds I have come to know. There are two couples who live here with me and do they ever have a lot to complain about. And they are always up in my business when I am outside; assessing what I am doing and how long it will take and if I am too close to where they want to perch. Even when they are eating the suet I provide to them and my other feathered neighbors, they argue with me with their mouths full. The chickadees don’t mind if I watch them eat but the Carolina wrens sure do.

In mid-March when one of the couples decided to make their new nest in my kitchen vent and I was having none of that, we argued for days. I would turn on the fan to prove to them that the location they wanted would be too noisy and breezy. They would fly out of the vent and sit at the window glaring at me. It felt eerie that they knew I was the cause of the loud windy problem and that they knew where to look for me. They would keep putting materials in the vent while I went outside to chide them, and I would take the materials out while they yelled at me. Well finally I evicted them by closing the vent, stating that they had many other perfectly good locations but that the vent was not one of them. After quite the disgruntled display – they knew I was the cause of their sorrow – they did choose another location – one I haven’t found yet. I almost miss the annoying yet somewhat endearing interaction. Almost. I am sure when I get too close to their nest, wherever it is in the yard, I will be scolded. Last year, when their nest box fell out of the lilac tree during a snowstorm and I put it back, they still yelled at me. As if I knocked their house out of the tree instead of the wind. I did really appreciate them living in the lilac bush though. Because even though I got admonished while I was putting up my laundry – which is right next to the lilac bush – if I lingered long enough and still enough, the male would start to sing, and I knew all was well in their world. That is until a predator got to their nestlings. We were all upset about that, and we – the wrens and I – mourned over the loss of the next generation. I think that is why it felt so hard to evict them this year from their very safe choice in housing. But I just couldn’t have them in the kitchen vent. The phoebes take the rafters in the carport and the house finches take the ledge next to the studio door and the starling couple takes the highest peak on the studio but there are still lots of options if they do want to stay close to the house for protection.

The Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) in Troglodytidae is a compact native songbird (order Passeriformes) with a tail that tends to stick up like they are giving you the middle finger when showing you their rump. There is no discernable sexual dimorphism. Both sexes have rusty-brown backs, light tan bellies, a white streak over their eyes, and black-banded wing and tail feathers. Carolina wrens mainly eat insects and spiders but sticking around in the winter, they also consume seeds from bayberry, sweetgum, and poison ivy. They will also eat berry pulp and suet. They have an argumentative scolding voice when they are – well – scolding you or some perceived or real predator. The male’s song is comprised of several short piercing whistling notes as if he were getting your attention to make an important public service announcement.

Now, if you don’t mind being scolded at and can hold your own in an inter-species disagreement, Carolina wrens are quite charming to have as neighbors.

And speaking of Lilacs…

Did you know that lilac flowers are edible? Heralding from southeastern Europe to eastern Asia, lilac (Syringa spp) in Oleaceae, also known as the olive family, have made a good home here in New England.  Lilacs make pleasant neighbors. They are not aggressive spreaders and tend to be quite content in one’s yard. And their scent is so sweet! I love sitting beneath them, looking up into the purple display of beauty, and communing with the hum of life around me. There is vibrant serenity about them. Branching is opposite and paired with heart-shaped leaves. The 4-petaled flowers bloom in May and are arranged in a long-bunched cluster along the stem. Colors range from shades of purple and burgundy to white and pink.

The flowers taste like they smell. You can toss them in raw with other flowers and spring greens to make a flower-power salad or infuse them with water for a refreshing festive drink or add as a decorative accent to a cake. You can make lilac syrup with water and sugar. Combine equal amounts of sugar and water and bring to a boil in a sauce pan while stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Turn off the heat and add double the amount of lilac flowers and let steep for several hours. Using a sieve to strain the flowers, pour the cooled syrup into a glass jar with a lid. The syrup will keep a few days in the fridge. Lilac honey is simpler but will take longer. Just stuff flowers in a jar, cover completely with honey, and let sit for 2-4 weeks in a covered jar. The upshot is that you don’t need to strain out the flowers – you can eat them with the honey. And if you are very patient, you can make lilac mead by fermenting a concoction of water, honey, and the flowers! Mead can take a year or more to be ready and is best when you let it sit for several years. And if you’re into jelly, you can make lilac jelly too.

There are so many stories out here in the outside and sometimes you get to be a part of them, whether you are interacting with your feathered neighbors or harvesting some of your flowered ones.  So, get outside and be a part of the commotion.

Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, wild edible enthusiast, and Wiccan High Priestess lives in Ashfield, MA.

Into the Outside by Arianna

This article appears in the May 2022 edition of The Ashfield News.

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