And so to bed.

I am coming to the opinion that Wren’s don’t give a shit. It is this, that makes them adorable. Any other garden bird could have made this an anthropocentric blog about befriending wildlife. Robin tickling; being trained by a Blackbird to drop food and keep pigeons away while he feasts; setting up a Blue Tit nest cam and following the goings on of the family; or any other series of anecdotes. That, as you would contest, is not birding –active searching.

Like most species Wrens don’t need us, even the ‘put out some Niger seeds now’ finches would be better off without humans. They fly off as soon as you open the door to replenish the feeder, but they come back. Not the Wren. It asks for nothing, so why should it do cartwheels of appreciation the moment you find one picking at the bottom of a hedge? They carry on, dancing as if no-one was watching.

So it was last night. The wind was strong and it bitterly resented seeing bare flesh of face and hands being exposed. Sheltering behind a Gorse bush I planned my next move, but could see no less painful way back than into the wind.  There was some Wren chatter in the nearby clumps of long grass and sedge; plenty of chatter but nothing to see. Nothing to see until one popped into the Gorse bush next to me. It picked around down to a metre from my face before disappearing. Then a second, and a third, all of which gave me the beady eye stare that underlined the lack of significance of me in their world. They disappeared into the bush and fell silent.

It had been like moths attracted to a flame. None of the birds landed on me, but for a moment I felt like I was part of their world. Really, they did not give a damn one way or the other.  It was now 5.30pm and a couple more were silhouetted, singly, against the pale blue sky. They too disappeared and into silence where the twigs were most dense, around head height.

I have traveled miles to see big birds -harriers, cranes and swans coming in to roost.  You can see them from half a mile or more.  Small birds as well like Starlings in vast numbers they become a single organism.  Again they are seen from distance.  The Wren roost was small scale and intimate.  Something I had never seen before and it was truly staggering for this reason alone.

*****

Having read about roosts of Wrens using bird boxes and caves I had hoped, but not expected to see one in this unusual year. Writing one day on I am still pumped about finding this piece of the puzzle.

wren

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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

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

 

Wren, by the book.

Chocolate brown in deep shadow. Hop; poke; twist; whirr of wings; peck; jump-up; bob; peck; twist. Detail is hard to come by in these brief meetings. I need to go back to the books.

Wren, has been an image built up of layers of Wren each adding more detail to the last until we are satiated.  Digging down in this avian archaeology the first layer is The Observers Book of Birds.  A black and white image on page 152 is Wren shaped.  The first sentence reads, ‘The Wren is one of our smallest birds, and is quite unmistakable with its brown plumage, round-about appearance and tilted up tail’.  This combined with that work of fiction, known as The Eye Spy Book of Birds; what I didn’t see in my village at the end of the 70s, would have been my first Wren words.  Then there was the eight lines in the Observers Book of Bird eggs, which described the nest as being built out of ‘any handy material’.

By the time I saw Richard Richardson’s image of Wren, among the plate of brown warblers and a very small Nightingale, I must have already seen Wren.  Words from the Collins Pocket Guide to British Birds were closer to Wren.  ‘The smallest warm-brown bird, its barred plumage and cocked-up tail make it almost unmistakable’.  Almost seems a bit cautious in this case as it is preceded by ‘Flight Whirring; hops; almost creeps among undergrowth like mouse’.    There was no reference at all to the undertail-coverts as shown here by Mark Dobinson’s picture.

Wren MArk Davison undertail

By the time the Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland arrived I probably did not notice Wren, sandwich as it was by the exotics of Waxwing and Dipper in 1983.  Largely, that’s how it remained its tic-tic-tic, scolding trill or burst of loud warbling song breaking the consciousness neither Collins or Jonsson added anything new.  When in 2004 when Birding World highlighted the races living on offshore Scottish Islands I was not really that bothered.

The only new information came in 2010 from Van Duivendijk’s Advanced Bird ID Guide in describing 1w-1s ‘Sometimes moult-limit in greater coverts, juv-type warm-brown without pale tips ad-type slightly greyer and often with pale or white tips’.  He alluded to the island forms which Hume et al. illustrated in 2016 and only then did things start to take shape.

Humes island wrens

There they sat until I added other species of wren in the States -Carolina and Eastern Marsh.  At this point I started to take Wren more seriously as two rather than the usual one took our garden as their winter territory.  Silently arriving together they demanded attention.

Wren.  What am I looking for?

Fox was not on my mind when I settled down to explore Wren. She pulled herself out of Braken hidden from the biting north wind. She may have stayed all day had I not chosen this spot to improve on last week’s ability to see Wren. Disdainful look over her shoulder, I knew my place. Wren moved, well Braken moved like Michael Benteen’s Potty Time, but Wren did not show. Then a whirr of wings. A cocked brown tail; pale supercilium; pointy beak; bright beady eye; then nothing.  Deep undercover it called leading to a burst of song from behind me. Then it was just Braken again. Knowing Wren is going to be more time consuming than I originally thought.

I was in town later and on a whim I went to see what modern nature writers were saying about Wren.  The Complete Book of Garden birds, with David Daley’s lovely water colours, devotes as much space to Wren as it does to Hawfinch.  This parity  is not mirrored I suspect by most birders with the current influx of hundreds of Hawfinches to the country.


Wren by David Daley

After that other writers expressed Wren as a tut-tutter, unmistakeable and a list padder.  Repetition of the volume of song from such a small bird began to bore me.  Why has all the observant creative writing been lost to repeating things others have already said.  No wonder children are not engaged.

I turned to go and at the top of the stairs was a copy of Macfarlane and Morris’s Lost Words.  Having seen Wren being painted and spoken, would the book live up to expectations.  These are spells to engage children with things we are losing.  Important things and Wren is there as its own page and hidden amongst the other leaves too.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=aYKgtDXJ4mM

This is what I am searching for.  Wren, an active verb as well as a hidden noun.  Here was the project.  Why? may be a different question.

The facts may already be known, but not to me.  At 9 grams it is the weight of a £1 coin.  How has it successfully covered the Northern Hemisphere?

What is it about ‘Wren-ness’?

There are few birds that span the Northern Hemisphere that have not been aided to do so by man.  One of these exceptions is the Wren.  Until recently (2010) regarded as one species, on any given Spring day as the sun rises it would be shining on a Wren setting forth its territorial claim to its slice of the planet.  There is no more exciting a claim than such a small bird with such a loud voice.  Donald Kroodsma envisaged this as, ‘a wave of Wren song following the sun’.  Across the globe, because of this, many cultures encounter Wrens.  Each in turn labels it, some for its small size or like the Ojibway who name it in honour of its song- Ka-wa-miti-go-shi-que-na-go-mooch.

Seeing a new species of bird for the first time makes a huge impression when they are rare and sought after.  Gyr Falcon, Pacific Swift, Lark Sparrow and Oriental Praticole are words that conjure up a moment in time on a specific day that I first saw them.  Common birds just drift into your consciousness after forty years of birding.  Blue Tits, Robins, Greenfinch and Linnets are just as much a part of my childhood as my family.  I don’t remember when I first met them either.  I do however have a memory of Wren singing from a Hogweed in bright May sunshine.

Looking for a close to home bird project for 2018 I realised I don’t know much about Wrens, even though it features in most of my birding notes.  From winters on upland moors down to the beach Wren is always there.  In City centres it is there, I have heard it singing among the noise of Liverpool’s shoppers.  But I don’t know Wren and while out of work it leached into my being and I need to know more.

This may be the start of something or nothing, but I have the chance to see two more taxa of Wren-ness.  Before I do I need to know more about ours.

This photo gives you some idea of what I have let myself in for.  Its a bird form the far east and I will credit the photographer once he tells me which country it was taken in.  It shows Wren-ness, but not of the kind I see in my garden.  Let the adventures begin.

'far eastern' Wren