This afternoon we were captivated by a little Wren, busying itself in the undergrowth of a hedge that lines the bridleway from the Welsh Venison Centre (we prefer to think of it as The Deer Sanctuary) to Tal-y-bryn. We had stopped to listen to a Robin singing his heart out / fiercely claiming his territory, but the noisy harrumphing of the Wren drew our attention away. These tiny birds are barely the size of a child’s hand but make a real racket. Indeed, my twitcher app tells me in a Top Trumps sort of way that “weight for weight the Wren’s song is ten times louder than a crowing cockerel”.
They are plucky little things too and, like the Robin, their song is more a territorial chant than a cheerful whistle. According to bird artist, Matt Sewell, the Wren is “[a] tiny, busy, hardy bird that won’t mind telling anybody to sling their hook”.
Moreover, as folk singer, Becky Unthank, relates in a wonderful Tweet of the Day, Wren’s are as clever as they are brave, at least if children’s literature is to be believed (I’m assuming everyone else has been looking out for owls who are afraid of the dark since they were five too?). Thus, when the feathered folk decided that whoever could fly highest would be crowned King/Queen of the Birds, the sneaky Wren stowed away in an eagle’s wing and when its transporter started to descend, thinking it had out-flown all-comers, the Wren darted upwards to claim the prize.
If it wasn’t for their attention-seeking call Wren’s would be hard to spot. “It has a mouse-like way of creeping about among the branches in a bush”, according to my authoritative ‘Observer Book of British Birds’. Admittedly I am using the 1955 edition, inscribed on the front page by my mother – “Ruth Collins, 19 Hawarden Road, Newport, Mons”, but I doubt Wren’s habits have changed much since then.
The same pocket-book now tells me that what I knew as the Goldcrest is actually a Golden Crested Wren, qualifies as Europe’s smallest bird, and binds its nest of moss and lichen with stolen spiders’ webs. I admire spiders, but I don’t think I would sleep comfortably in a bed made of a material designed for entrapment, so the home of the common Wren sounds more enticing: “[a] beautifully constructed domed nest of moss, leaves, grass, wool and feathers, with a round entrance hole at the side”.
The natural world oracle that is Ms Markontour informs me that the humble Wren is now the most populous bird in Britain, albeit because of the calamitous decline in sparrow populations thanks to increased use of pesticides and human destruction of their habitats. That said, there used to be more than the current seventeen million Wrens, albeit that the additional few hundred thousand were embossed onto the old farthing coin (see image above).
The one thing bugging me about the Wren is that its scientific name is ‘Troglodyte’. I know from researching a recent blog about the Devil’s Arse that troglodytes are cave dwellers. So what was my Wren doing out in a field? It seems that long-forgotten ancestors of our hedge-dwelling Wren had a tendency to forage in dark crevices. Names do stick, as I learned listening to Michael Rosen’s Word of Mouth this morning. The town of Pity Me in Yorkshire, for example, gained its moniker in honour of a long lost farmer who, quite out of character for his county, stubbornly continued to plough unyeilding soil while all the while loudly bemoaning his lot. Probably.
The tendency of Wrens to creep around, whether in caves or amongst hedge roots, is itself supposedly poetic justice for their cheek in out-witting the eagle. According to Ted Hughes in ‘The Book of Merlyn’: “The Wren is a nervous wreck / Since he saw the sun from the back of an eagle / He prefers to Creep”.
Whatever the motive, long may the wren continue to creep and chirrup, in my view. It is a joyous, fluffy, miniature song-box and I wish we had seventeen million more of them. Gaining the privilege of standing watching one at work today was a winter present wrapped with ribbons and bows.
Which is why I’ll give the last markontour word on the Wren to Gillian Clarke (courtesy of Alex Preston and Neil Gower’s ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire‘):
“Once there was a house by a lake, and inside it another house – a white farm, its rooms full of waves breaking, and inside the farm a tall red house where at night the foghorn moaned far out at sea like a lost moon. And inside all of them was Christmas.. [On the top-most branch of the Christmas tree] something is quivering, like your heart when you unpack all the Christmases of your life from the box. Something is alive. Something has come in from the snowy dawn. A small brown bird, reflected, again and again, in the glass, as if all the small brown birds in the world were sheltering from the cold on our Christmas tree. On its topmost branch, where the star of Bethlehem should be, quivering, alive, a wren.”