Monday, 26 December 2016

Bird of the week - Wren

Despite its small size, gram for gram the wren is our loudest bird.

The wren's binomial name is Troglodytes troglodytes.  One drawback of the name of this blog is that I regularly have to explain the joke.  (Although a troglodyte is a cave dweller the word comes from Greek words trogle, a hole, and dyein, to creep.)  In French the wren is a little king, roitelet, also troglodyte mignon, mignon meaning cute(!).  In German it is a hedge king, Zaunk├Ânig, and king crops up in its name in several other languages.

There are several myths and folk tales about the wren, particularly how it became known as the king of the birds.  A challenge was set amongst the birds to see who would be king and the owl decided that the prize would go to the bird that could fly highest.  All the birds took off and flew upwards, dropping out one by one.  Eventually only the eagle was left.  Just as it could fly no higher the wren took off from a hiding place on the eagle's back and claimed the prize, which was duplicitous or resourceful depending how you look at it.

Today, St Stephen's Day or Boxing Day, is also Wren Day or Hunt the Wren Day.  St Stephen, the first christian martyr, was said to have been betrayed by the song of the wren, one of the few birds to sing in winter.  Originally a druidic or Norse festival, it is still celebrated in parts of Ireland and elsewhere.  In times past the young men of the town would try to catch a wren in the countryside and parade it through the town tied to a decorated holly bush.  I suspect these days it is mainly an excuse for the Wren Boys to dress up in a straw costume, march around town and drink Guinness.  You can read more about hunting the wren here.

By National Library of Ireland on The Commons - December 26Uploaded by oaktree_b, Public Domain,

The wren is the most numerous and widespread bird in the British Isles.  Numbers fall after a hard winter but soon rebound and there are reckoned to be around 9 or 10 million breeding pairs.

Wrens are found in almost every habitat apart from high mountains.

They are also found throughout Europe, as shown by this EBCC map.

New research from the BTO also shows that northern wrens are tougher and better adapted to cold weather than the softies in the south.  Read more here.

Thomas Bewick wrote of the wren,

This is his engraving from A History of British Birds (1797).

You can listen to the wren's song here and its call here.  Listen to the BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day on wren here.

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