The dry leaves at my feet rustled and a little brown shape flitted out of sight under a pile of leaves. Before I had time to decide what manner of mouse this was the mouse hopped up through the tangled brambles and flicked its wings, issuing a loud, scolding stream of ‘tuts’ before disappearing again. I was certain I had been watching a mouse but no, this was the tiny wren: a feathered brown ball and one of the smallest British birds.
Often assumed to be our smallest bird, the wren is pipped to the post by the Goldcrest, a truly miniscule bird that keeps to the evergreen trees and shrubs of parks and gardens. As you would expect, the Goldcrest’s voice is needle-thin and its song a delicate cascade of squeaky notes. The wren, on the other hand, despite being only fractionally less tiny, punches well above its weight with one of the loudest songs of all our garden birds.
Its cheerful explosion of musical notes can be heard at almost any time of year throughout Britain but at this time of year, when love is in the air, the wren is more likely to be seen perched up boldly, atop some shrubbery, in full song. It is a business-like song that matches the wren’s busy-ness as it flits and forages in the undergrowth – a song to dispel any winter cobwebs and get us moving!
However, in folklore, it is this very voice that got the wren into trouble. Its scolding warning is reputed to have given away St Stephen’s hiding place leading ultimately to his stoning as the first Christian martyr. This sorry tale was reenacted, particularly in Ireland, every St Stephen’s Day by young boys going on a ‘Wren Hunt’ to capture wrens and kill them by stoning. The dead wrens would then take centre-place in a parade recalling the bird’s unwitting betrayal. Thank fully this barbaric activity is no longer practiced and where the wren does appear in St Stephen’s Day celebrations it is only as an effigy fixed to a pole.
This harsh treatment of the wren stands in contrast to the usual veneration given it since the earliest times. The druids believed it to be a sacred bird and a symbol of wisdom and divinity. Harming a wren, it was believed, could lead to harm for that person in the form of a withered hand or curse. The Greeks declared the wren the ‘king of birds’ after its fabled victory in a competition to determine the greatest of birds by seeing which bird could fly the highest. It was assumed the eagle had won the competition as it soared high above all other birds but, hiding on its back, the tiny Wren was declared the victor and crowned the King of Birds!
For such a small, brown bird the wren’s fame throughout history is maybe surprising. But it is perhaps more familiarity than fame or any special feats that have made the wren both famous and infamous. Its scientific name, Troglodytes troglodytes, derived from ‘troglodyte’ or cave-dweller, hints that the wren has been with us from the earliest times, wherever we dwell. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t hear the song of the wren – it greets me as I enter the garden and accompanies me on almost any walk I do.
Just last week, a small ball of brown whizzed past my head as I walked out of the back door into the garden. It appeared to disappear in the wall of the house but on looking I could seen a small opening by a pipe – this year’s cave of choice for the little wren. That said, it may or may not see a brood of new wrens as male wrens typically build anything up to twelve nests in a season. He must trust that one of them will meet with approval from his mate. If it does the hen wren will complete his work with a lining and raise a large family of 8 or 9 young.
If you have any thick ivy or shrubbery in your garden the chances are you will have nesting wrens. In a few months time you may well see the newly fledged young sitting in a row, freshly spilled out of the nest and awaiting their next meal. Take a moment to appreciate these larger-than-life characters for they are part of the assumed fabric of our lives bringing a cheery (and often noisy) busy-ness that we’d miss if it wasn’t there.
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