Dear Readers, as this week my own photography is completely pants (technical term) I have collaborated with my friend John Humble, who has provided some of the photos below. You might remember John from his wonderful fox photos in my Foxycology post last year. I am delighted to be working with him again.
Dear Readers, according to the RSPB there are approximately nine million breeding pairs of wrens in the UK. Yet, this is a bird that is far more often heard than seen – indeed a walk in Coldfall Wood, especially in the newly-coppiced area, can feel like walking along a corridor of ferocious wren-song, each bird announcing their territory with a new burst of enthusiastic music. Weight for weight, the song of a wren is louder than that of a cockerel, and can be heard up to half a mile away on a still day. But in spite of their loudness and their commonness, it’s unusual for me to actually see a wren in the garden.
So, it was a rare treat when I actually saw a wren picking over the debris under my jasmine on Wednesday. The bird spent a whole five minutes tossing aside dried leaves and turning over twigs before it flew off into the hedge. It was so tiny that it seemed more like a large, buzzing insect than a bird ( an adult wren weighs about the same as a pound coin). And yet, what wrens lack in size they certainly make up for in personality.
Wrens have been given the pet name of Jenny Wren which, like Robin Redbreast, seems to be a term of affection. However, as we shall see, this endearment has not saved this tiny bird from our brutality. It is likely that the name ‘wren’ comes from the Old English word wrenna or woerna, both of which seem to have an underlying reference to lasciviousness, possibly because the male wren is unusual in having several ‘wives’ (though there may also be an insinuation that that pert, erect tail gives an indication of the bird’s wantonness) . In Germany the wren is known as Zaunkonig, the king of the hedge. In Dutch, it is winterkoninkje, or little winter king. Both names point to the apparent boldness of the wren, though in Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker points out that the bird’s attitude is more one of total indifference to us. We are just large, rather clumsy mammals who happen to lurch into the wren’s line of sight every so often, though we are very useful for providing nest sites.
The male wren builds several ‘starter-home’ nests in his territory – the average number is 6.3, though Mark Cocker mentions one Dutch bird that made 40 in 4 years. He then sings to attract a female. She will select the best of the nests and line it with moss and feathers, lay the eggs and rear the young with no help from the male, who is no doubt exhausted what with all that nest-building and singing. What is remarkable is the range and variety of nest sites selected. Again, from Birds Britannica:
‘……sites have included the base of a magpie’s nest occupied by kestrels, the floral cross on a church pulpit (the bird lining it with moss taken off the lectern) and inside the mouth of a prize pike hanging on a garage wall. Noise and movement are no deterrent whatsoever. Young wrens were successfully reared from a nest right next to a circular saw (just 8 inches/19 cm away) in use eight hours a day, while the young and eggs of another pair made a twice weekly journey from Kent to Covent Garden on the running board of a lorry‘.
Yet, although the wren uses the housing opportunities that we provide, it is a bird that does not rely on us at all. It does not visit bird tables or frequent feeders. It does not use our nest boxes to nest in (though in very cold winters the birds may roost together in them – the record is 63 wrens in one box). When there is snow on the ground and the earth is frozen, this insectivorous bird may have slim pickings, and the wren population may fall precipitously, though some people swear that hard cheese, grated under a hedge, may sometimes be taken by the desperate birds. And yet, the species bounces back, probably because each of the female wrens in a territory can rear up to 8 fledglings if conditions are good.
Fossil records tell us that wrens have been in the UK since before the last Ice Age. A bird which has lived alongside us for such a long time might be expected to have garnered a certain amount of legend and symbolism, and this is certainly true of the wren. Aesop tells how the eagle and the wren had a competition to see who could fly highest. The wren hid in the eagle’s feathers and, when the larger bird grew tired, the wren flew out above him, winning the bet. For Aesop this was a sign that cleverness could beat brawn, but it set the tone for the idea that there is something sneaky about the wren.
In Celtic mythology the bird, which is one of the few that sings even in mid-winter, was seen as a symbol of the past year, and this might be the reason for several ceremonies in which a wren is killed on or around the winter solstice.
The bird also garnered an unfortunate reputation for treachery – a wren was supposed to have betrayed Irish soldiers fighting against the Vikings by pecking on a drum and waking the Vikings up. A wren is also said to have given away the whereabouts of St Stephen by singing from a branch of the hedge in which he was hiding from his persecutors. As a result, many countries have a ‘wren ceremony’ on or about the 26th December (St Stephen’s Day). These days, no bird is killed, but in the past a wren would have been harried to death and its limp little corpse carried around the village on a pole, while the ‘Wren Boys’ begged for alms.
Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, chose this for her subject for her Christmas poem last year: here is a sample. For the full poem, with some wonderful illustrations, have a look here. No wrens were harmed in the making of this poem, which is just as it should be.
Hedge-bandit, song-bomb, dart-beak, the wren
hops in the thicket, flirt-eye; shy, brave,
grubbing, winter’s scamp, but more than itself –
ten requisite grams of the world’s weight.
And here’s the craic: that the little bird
had betrayed a saint with its song,
or stolen a ride on an eagle’s back
to fly highest; traitor and cheat.
But poets named it Dryw, druid and wren,
sought its hermit tune for a muse;
sweethearts thought it a foolproof blessing for love.
Which was true for the wren? None of the above.
As usual, Birds Britannica by Richard Mabey and Mark Cocker has been invaluable for this post. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
John Humble provided photographs One and Three. I am delighted to be collaborating with him again.
Photo Two : By Sonja Kübelbeck – own picture –Kuebi 16:31, 5 May 2007 (UTC), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2061952
Photo Four: By Murat Acuner – https://www.flickr.com/photos/muratacuner/3630474036
Photo Five: By National Library of Ireland on The Commons – December 26 Uploaded by oaktree_b, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17816307