Head Southwest to See a Cactus Wren

Updated: May 06, 2022

Find out what a cactus wren looks like, what these desert birds eat and where to spot them. Also find out where cactus wrens build their nests.

What Does a Cactus Wren Look Like

Bnbbyc19 Pamela ParkerCourtesy Pamela Parker
A cactus wren at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona

Cactus wrens are the largest type of wren found in the United States. They have boldly barred, striped and spotted plumage, and their wings and tail are barred with black. Also look for a bold white eye stripe. The cactus wren is the state bird of Arizona.

House wren vs Carolina wren: Learn how to tell the difference.

Nest and Eggs

cactus wrenCourtesy Kristine Hoffman
Cactus wren in the middle of a cholla bush

Cactus wrens are skilled at slipping through the sharp spines of cactus thickets, choosing to build nests and raise their young there. A cactus wren nest is conspicuous—a domed affair with a tunnel entrance 5 to 6 inches (13 to 15 cm) long. The whole structure, woven of plant fibers, leaves, and twigs, is shaped somewhat like a flask lying on its side. Typically, it rests in the arms of a big cactus or on a branch of a thorny bush or mesquite tree.

According to birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, one popular location for their bulky nests is a type of cactus called cholla, which looks like a short jumble of stout branches covered with sharp spines. The big, boldly marked birds build their nests deep within the center of this cactus. They manage to fly in and out hundreds of times without getting stuck.

cactus wren nestCourtesy Diane Barone
A pair of cactus wrens at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson raised babies in a saguaro

They may also nest in cavities, such as a saguaro (above). A pair of cactus wrens maintain several nests at one time. They may raise three broods a year, changing nests at the beginning of each cycle.

Welcome nesting wrens to a wren bird house.

bird nesting materialCourtesy Elizabeth Howard
Cactus wren with nesting material

After the young have fledged, the adults continue to make repairs to the nests, since they are used as winter roosts.

When do house wrens return in spring?

What Do Cactus Wrens Eat

Bnbbyc19 Janis Harless 1Courtesy Janis Harless
Cactus wren in Scottsdale, Arizona

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, cactus wrens forage for food on the ground, primarily eating insects such as ants, grasshoppers and beetles, as well as some seeds and fruit.

Enjoy more delightful pictures of wren birds.


cactus wren, desert birdsCourtesy Sara Sullivan
A cactus wren in Casa Grande, Arizona

This wren is a bird of arid, low-altitude country where cacti are plentiful. The species does not migrate. Birders will find them year-round in desert areas throughout the southwestern states, and also in dry, brushy woods.

Next, learn what a Carolina wren call sounds like.