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Marsh Wren

Cistothorus palustris

Length: 4.5 to 5 inches Wingspan: 5.5 to 7 inches Seasonality: Summer
ID Keys: (both sexes): Brown upperparts with black and white streaking in center of upper back, white underparts, bold white eyebrow, blackish-brown crown.

Marsh Wren - Cistothorus palustrisCattail marshes in South Dakota are usually occupied by Marsh Wrens.  Sometimes difficult to see in the dense wetland vegetation, their presence is still unmistakable, with their bubbling songs a common sound in wetland habitats.  They are often very curious, responding to a human "pishing" and otherwise checking out (and sometimes scolding) intruders in their domain. They have a complex, chaotic courtship and nesting behavior, with birds mating with multiple partners, and raids on nests of adjacent Marsh Wrens that often result in the destruction of their eggs.


During the summer breeding season, they can be found in a variety of fresh- and brackish-water marshes, usually where dense stands of wetland vegetation (cattails, etc.) are present in shallow water or along the water's edges.  Uses similar habitat during the winter, but will also use salt marshes.


Primarily feeds on insects, both terrestrial and aquatic.  Will also eat spiders and snails.


Forages in dense low vegetation, hunting for insects both on the vegetation and on the ground.  They will often take items from the water's surface, and will also occasionally fly from a perch to take flying insects from mid-air.


June and July in South Dakota. The male begins courtship by building a number of incomplete nests, built in cattail marshes and other similar dense wetland vegetation.  He allows a female to choose a final nesting site, where he finishes building a dome-shaped structure with the nest opening at the top. The female finishes the nest, lining it with feathers, down, fine grasses, and small roots. She lays between 3 and 10 eggs, and she alone incubates them. The eggs hatch after about 2 weeks, with the young fledging from the nest after about another 2 weeks.

Marsh Wrens are very competitive for nesting sites, with individual birds often destroying the eggs of nearby nesting birds. Individual birds may mate with other Marsh Wrens in the vicinity.


A gurgling, bubbly variable medley.


Summers throughout much of the northern United States and Canada.  Winters throughout the southwestern quarter of the United States, along the Pacific Coast, and in the deep southeastern U.S.  Some populations along the Pacific Coast and in the western U.S. are permanent residents.

Interactive eBird Map:

Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Marsh Wren sightings

Similar Species:

They are often identified by habitat alone, given that other similar-looking wren species aren't found nearly as often around cattails and marshes. However, there are species that are similar in appearance and do sometimes overlap in range:

Conservation Status:

Numbers are probably much lower than historical levels due to the vast loss of wetlands throughout its normal range, but they currently appear to have stable populations to increasing populations. Still susceptible to local population loss when wetland habitats are lost. The IUCN currently considers the Marsh Wren to be a species of "Least Concern".

Further Information:

1) BirdWeb - Marsh Wren

2) WhatBird - Marsh Wren

3) Audubon Guide - Marsh Wren

Photo Information:

July 26th, 2006 - Minnehaha County - Terry Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Marsh Wren photos.

Audio File Credits:

1Whitney Neufeld-Kaiser, from Washington State in March 2018.  Original recording and information found on xeno-canto.

2Paul Marvin, from the Imperial Valley of Southern California on January 18th, 2018. Original recording and information found on xeno-canto.

Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Marsh Wren - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Common summer breeding resident in the eastern part of the state.  Less common in the west and local.

Additional Marsh Wren Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
 Marsh Wren 1 - Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 2 - Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 3 - Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 4 - Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 5 - Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 6 - Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 7 - Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 8 - Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 9 - Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 10- Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 11 - Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 12 - Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 13 - Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 14 - Cistothorus palustrisMarsh Wren 15 - Cistothorus palustris