For the last few days the house and garden have been filled with the sound of the wrens. I love wrens; plucky little things with their pretty wing markings and their sticky-up tails. This tiny bird has a huge voice – it’s one of our loudest birds – and we have a family of them in the nest box very close to the house. The babies are pretty near to fledging now and they make a tremendous racket every time a parent arrives with a morsel of food for them, which is every few minutes. The neighbourhood cats keep hanging around, attracted by the cheeping noise, which causes the parents to scold the offending feline with their loud tic-tic-tic-tic-tic alarm call (similar to that of a blackbird) known as ‘cursing the cat’. That prompts me to go out and make my own cursing the cat noise – a sort of ppsshhhht! – that scares it off and sends the dog into a frenzy of barking excitement at the chance of chasing a cat!
Usually wrens are usually more likely to be heard than seen as they favour thick cover and low vegetation, and fly low to the ground. I see them flitting about amongst the pots and shrubs in the garden but it’s usually a fleeting glance you get of them as they hunt for insects. At the moment though, with at least four hungry mouths to feed, they are very bold and can be seen almost constantly as they scour the garden for caterpillars. They were starting to look a bit scruffy and skinny, as parent birds tend to do at this time of year, so I thought I’d give them a helping hand by buying some mealworms and putting them out in a tray. They cottoned on very quickly and are happy to come and take their mealworms from just a couple of feet away from us. I think the mealworms are the backup choice though, as the birds will go off hunting for food and then if they return empty beaked will visit the mealworm tray. I guess caterpillars, which seem to be the main food they’re taking into the nest, have a higher moisture content. They’re feeding themselves with the mealworms too, so it’s nice to give them an easy meal.
The wren is the most numerous bird in Britain, and a prolific breeder. This balances the fact that with such tiny bodies and high metabolisms, they suffer dreadfully in very cold weather – populations can reduce by between 25% and 90% during especially harsh winters when they can’t find the insect food that their long, thin beaks are specialised for. Their Latin name Troglodytes troglodytes means cave-dweller, from their habits of foraging for food in dark, secret places and nesting on rocky cliffs. The wren’s ubiquitousness is due to their success in colonising pretty much every habitat in Britain; from gardens to moorland, woodland to coast, you will see (or much more likely hear) the wren. Populations on the isolated northern islands of the UK have diversified into various subspecies, with different types found on the Shetland Isles, Fair Isle, Outer Hebrides and St Kildan. The St Kildan wren is considerably heavier and thicker set than the mainland wren (so better able to withstand the harsher climate), with paler colouring and a thicker beak. Evolution in action!
Wrens are unusual in song bird circles as the male builds several (up to 12!) nests during spring with which he entices females to become his mate. The female selects her favourite nest and lines it with feathers before laying her eggs. The male is polygynous, attracting more than one female if he can, although the northern subspecies are less prone to do this as presumably life is a bit harder for one family, let alone several. The female may be polyandrous but this is more likely to be a quickie on the side, so to speak, whilst hubby is off looking after his other families. After the chicks fledge the male parent will still lead them to a safe roosting spot each night. During the winter wrens are communal roosters, with a male inviting other wrens into his territory to share body heat in a nest or crevice. The record is 61 wrens in one nestbox! They need a bit of a boost in cold weather as their tiny size – they weigh just 8 – 13 g – means that they don’t retain body heat well. Only the goldcrest and firecrest are smaller.
Our wrens have already raised at least one brood (possibly two) this year in this nest box – it’s an open fronted nest box suitable for robins and wrens, and it’s sited in thick ivy cover right by the patio. It was a lovely surprise to discover that they were nesting again, especially after we also had the blackbird nest in the adjacent willow tree. I’ve taken some sneaky photos into the nest box while the parents are away and I can see at least four chicks which look very close to fledging. I anticipate lots of cat patrols over the next week or so!
Wrens are the subject of lots of mythology and folklore. There’s a rather unpleasant tradition that was widespread in the British Isles and in Ireland of gangs of boys going hunting for wrens around St Stephens day, the 24th or 26th of December. They would then tie the wren to a pole and parade it around the village demanding gifts or contributions (a sort of avian trick-or-treat). Sometime it was plucked and the feathers handed around for good luck, or it buried in the church yard and songs sung over it. It seems like a mean end for a little bird that the Icelanders call ‘the mouse’s brother’ for its habits of scurrying through the undergrowth, hidden and bothering noone.
I prefer the tale of why the wren is King of all the Birds… Long ago all the birds got together and decided that they should have a king. There was much arguing about who should be king, and why. Should it be the largest bird? The strongest? The bird with the brightest plumage? Eventually the eagle insisted that the king should be the bird who could fly the highest. All the birds flew as high as they could, but the eagle flew higher than them all. He flew as high as he possibly could, and as he soared above them he called out ‘I can fly the highest. I am the King!’. But then the tiny wren flew out from the eagle’s wing where he had been hiding, and flew higher still to win the contest.
I think the moral of the story is that sometimes having a good plan gets better results than brute strength. 😉