A Prickly Situation ….. A Renovating Wren

For years we’ve hiked (carefully) past hundreds of stately cane chollas, many with what looks like wads of dried grasses caught tightly in and around the numerous spindly and haphazard arms that grow all over this desert cactus. On closer examination, we’ve discovered the cholla does not actually capture grasses blowing in the wind.  Instead, an industrious and very chatty little bird collects great quantities of dried grass to build a football-sized cavity nest woven protectively and securely on and between    the many arms of a cholla. 

Meet the Cactus Wren.  

Full journal page

Once you’ve heard this gregarious wren chatter and sputter hilariously, you’ll never forget it’s call! As we were walking along the trail one day, I instantly recognized a wildly vocalizing cactus wren. Scanning the skyline (because I know they also love rattling from a perch), he readily showed himself, and did not shy away as I approached. He was calling from the highest (10 feet) arm of a pretty stout cholla, and then quickly jumped down into the center of the branches to inspect an old nest.

This nest may have been old, but apparently this little guy felt a facelift was in order and began tidying up the tunnel-like entrance. He then collected a wad of grasses he’d plucked from the entrance and plunged himself down the tunnel, grasses included! What? What was this crazy bird doing …… nest building?

Turns out cactus wrens build several nests in the spring within their territory, and maintain them year-round. I have to believe they use their nests throughout the cold winter months to keep warm, and it looked like this guy was fixing up the interior of this particular nest with super soft bushmuhly grass stems. I would’ve loved an invitation to peek inside, but hiked on, leaving the cactus wren to his chores.

I’ve been by this nest several times in the past few weeks, hoping to catch the wren at home, but to no avail. Maybe he’s tending another nest somewhere else, as this one is in disarray. 

The Sketch
My sketch, mostly from memory, was done all in graphite using the “subtractive” technique. I don’t usually sketch in his manner, because it can get quite messy ….. laying graphite down then using my mono zero eraser to create the image …. but it was an effective way to illustrate the complexity of the nest and so many cholla spines.  Let me know what you think!

November 27, 2022


  1. janeottawa says:

    Oh my Barb, this is so intriguing and fascinating at the same time. When oh when will you put all these wonderful pages into a book?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comments, Jane! Oh dear …… a book?! Maybe someday! Meanwhile I hope yiu continue to enjoy my posts! Hahahha!


  2. What a fascinating find and observation! It is truly amazing how birds navigate their way through the spikes of the cholla! I’ll have to look through my NM photos to see if there were any nests as I definitely took pics of this plant! I love the graphite technique, it’s very effective and really shows the grasses and cholla spikes nicely! Oh, and yes, a published book would be amazing — have you seen Jo Brown’s “Secrets of a Devon Wood”? That is SO doable for your beautiful pages!


    1. Thanks for taking a look and the super comments, Karen! Let me know if you discover any nests tucked away in your cholla photos! The birds were probably close by. I love Jo Brown’s work …… have devoured everything and I follow her posts. She is amazing! Oh dear ….. me do a book? Maybe if I could ever settle on a theme, a book might make sense. Meanwhile, my major goal is to learn everything (lofty, huh?) as I’m loving just creating without any strings attached!


  3. Jean Mackay says:

    I love how this came out! You should be very pleased. You’ve captured the complexity and the textures beautifully. I love the subtle pencil work of the nest and cactus. Looks like you learned a lot too. Bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! Thanks so very very much Jean! Your comments mean so much. I think this may be a technique I use more in the future, although it did work up quite a dust storm. Hahaha! And I did learn a bit more about cactus wren behavior. They are not like typical wrens in several ways, and I can see where bird enthusiasts might confuse these comical little guys for something else. Glad I pursued . Again thanks!


    1. My jaw just dropped! Of course!!!!!


  4. sgoodman56 says:

    Oh, I wish I could see this bird doing chores, It’s so interesting to learn about them. The subtraction method worked EXTREMELY WELL, your nest is awesome, Barb!
    I imagine there aren’t too many predators that would try to get by the cactus armor. Is that correct?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahahahah! Maybe I could get one of these ambitious wrens to take on my chores! Thanks for the comments Susan. I loved messing with graphite then carefully erasing it in bits and strips. I’ll be trying this technique again. And yes, cactus wrens are successful cactus nesters. The tunnel entrance is small enough to deter larger predators, and the spines definitely help too. But the combo wouldn’t keep away hungry snakes!


  5. sgoodman56 says:

    It was the snakes I was worried about – oh no!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too …. But cactus wrens are like feathered mongoose when it comes to snakes!


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