Hunting the Wren.

Frost crystal flowers grew on my bedroom window during childhood winters. Before central heating and double glazing, you could only see the first snow by scraping frost from exhaled dreams. When it snowed though, our village was abandoned like a ship on an open sea for a couple of days. Schools closed and cream froze in glass bottles preventing the birds pecking through the silver cap. It was severe, but we were kids and did not notice these things slip away.

Once from my window I watched a grey Hen Harrier hunt where now double-glazing vacantly stares. The Ash tree is the only constant after the Elms died. Even then, it was the 1970s superimposed on the countryside; keepers begun to loosen their grip on the woods where now Buzzards fly. Here seeds were sown for the Countryside Alliance to speak for country folk as a thin disguise for keeping poor people in their place; Toffs hunted foxes, others baited badgers. At election time landowners hammered, ‘Vote Tory’ posters into roadside oaks, whilst removing jobs from the land. The language of the countryside disappeared into Standard English.

In ‘Pattern Under the Plough’ George Ewart Evans felt that people born between 1885 and 1895 were the last to live in the old society with folklore in abundance. They did not see it as anything different to themselves; not just believing it, but living it too. People born later became the first generation of the new age. They distanced themselves from lore and diminished our engagement with the natural world. We don’t gather around a central hearth, the stories we relay are being shouted at us from screens we view alone. The ‘other’ that lurked in old stories has been replaced by a fear of ‘other’ that is more like us. Everything else becomes nostalgia.

Elizabeth Atwell Laurence gathered together stories of our relationship with Wren as an explanation of the relationship between man and nature. ‘Hunting the Wren’ is more than just a description of a country tradition involving Wrens. For St Stephen’s Day I intended to relay the story as we watch for the lengthening of the days. However, the more I read, to find the true story, the more I could see the revival of a tradition of poverty, of oppression by the Catholic Church and in these post-Weinstein days, of sexual violence. So using the 66 names Laurence found for Wren here is an opportunity to hunt the Wren in her many guises on St Stephen’s Day.

66Wren Names v2

The names to look for are:

JENNY

JENNY WREN

JINNY WREN

JENNER HEN

KATY WREN

KITTY WREN

KITTY-ME-WREN

SALLY

WRAN

WRANNY

WRANNOCK

WIRANN

JENNY CRUDLE

BOBBY WREN

PUFFY WREN

CUT

CUTTY

CUTTY WREN

CUTTELEY WREN

CUDDY

SCUT

SCUTTY

SKIDDY

STAG

TOPE

STUMPY DICK

STUMPY TODDY

STUMPIT

CRACKET

CRACKADEE

CRACKIL

CHITTY

CHITTY WREN

JITTLY

PUGGY WREN

DICKEY PUG

TIDDY WREN

TIDDLY WREN

TOM TIT

TIT MEG

TITTER WREN

TITTY TODGER

TIT WREN

TITTY WREN

TINTY

RUNT

TOM THUMB

THUMB BIRD

TWO FINGERS

LITTLE OXENEYE

LITTLE NUT

LITTLE NETTLE

JUGGY WREN

GILLIVER WREN

VRAUN

SHEELY

MOONIE

GUARDNAM

JIMPO

WEE BROWN BUTTON

ROLLEY

LITTLE GOD

GODS BIRD

OUR LADYS HEN

LADY OF HEAVENS HEN

CHICKEN OF THE LORD

cristin bruggeman

Photo Cristen Bruggeman

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Mid winter Wren.

Light from the kitchen window cut acutely into the morning, disturbing the slow rise of mid-winter. It planned to go from black to dark grey and back to black with minimum effort. The last frost lingered among mossy rocks; Robin tutted disapproval. Car lights of the 9-5 moved beyond the hedge into the globs of sleet. Wind tugged at gold on Silver Birch and Ash’s last leaf hung without expectation.

Shadow moved through shadow. Where logs dripped black on black, a thin probing bill. With many insect-eating birds changing their diet or migrating how do Wrens survive? What do they peck at in the first rays of light? Disappearing into the pile of logs the answer remains screened from view. It appears higher up. Bob, whirr of wings, on the ground it shuffles under Hazel leaves; they move, they are still.

Only one Wren set forth through the leaves where once there had been two.  Perhaps this was not the winter to start looking at Wrens.  Annual population growth is consistently correlated  with the number of frost days.  There is local variation showing adaption to colder weather; individual Wrens are heavier in colder regions. However as there are already more frost days this winter than the last two combined there will be more vacant territories next Spring.

B&W Wren with sunscreen effect

How Do Wrens Measure Up?

Silently arriving together they demanded attention. Each bird took a different route; one picking under the leaves of the geraniums before the first frost flattens them; the second closer and easier to see, until it disappeared under a flower pot and out into the Hazel bush. At this point I claim them as ‘my’ Wrens. Knowing that one garden is not enough for their needs, does not defeat my possesiveness.

33438762436_b2bd3bc43b_b

Picture by Christopher Mercier

 
This is a common scene acted out in front of many household windows as Wrens are one of the top 20 most common garden birds. They are found in all other habitats too, with 7.7m territories across Britain the tic-tic of a Wren is never far away. Weighing about the same as a £1 coin (9g), the distribution map could be seen as a thin scattering of £14.4m.

wren distribution
Wren distribution from BTO BBS.

atlas wren distribution

If people know little about birds, they will still know that Wrens are small. The wing length is about that of the long edge of a custard cream with little difference between that of a male and female. The biscuit, for information, is heavier and tends not to move as fast around my garden. The biscuit is also paler in colour; the Hobnob being a better colour match did not have a suitable Wren metric.

wren trends

Population Trends

 
Wrens numbers drop after hard winters in Britain and so currently are doing well. This shift in climate is also being seen in its earlier nesting dates each year. The female lays 5-6 eggs which weigh 1.3g. Each egg represents about 14% of her body weight; you may wish to remember that next time you are in the bathroom.

laying date

Average laying date

 
Incubation last 2.5 weeks and there is another 2.5 weeks before the young Wrens fledge. About 26% of fledglings survive into the following year at which point they are able to breed. Many survive into a second breeding year, but these are short lives full of hustle and bustle. The longest lived birds hardly move far from where they were born, the greatest survivor being a 7 years old bird that lived its days on Bardsey Island.

fledgling per breeding attempt

Fledglings per breeding attempt

 
Some do have wanderlust and a small number of records of birds travelling within Britain up to 490km. Others have crossed the North Sea with a remarkable record of a bird travelling 909km from Falsterbo, Sweden to Northumberland in 13 days. However, the evidence does suggest that this species does have a tendency to stay local. This then, is part of their magic, here in your local birds is a genealogy traceable if one could only read the signs. Or more likely hear, as the song past from father to son that retains the essence of Wrenness through generations. It is this which isolates populations on islands and aids speciation.

Information taken from BTO Bird Facts