I always thought the wren was the most British of birds. When I googled it and found lots of images of exotic American versions I thought well, I suppose when the Pilgrim Fathers went to the New World they obviously saw lots of little birds that were similar (but usually more colourful) and gave them the name wren.
So I was surprised to find the wren is in fact the only Eurasian member of a large New World family, with about 10 species in the United States alone. Our simple British “wren” exists in America, where it is known as the Winter Wren and must have crossed over to the Old World during one of the milder periods of Earth’s past.
The Latin name of the British wren is Troglodytes troglodytes – from the Greek trogle, a hole, and dyein, to get into. Certainly wrens do spend a lot of their time dashing in and out of nooks and crevices, hunting small insects for food. Troglodyte is also a word we use for “caveman”, but wrens don’t actually live in caves, no matter how small.
One odd thing about the wren is that the male builds several nests in its territory in Spring and apparently takes his would-be bride around house-hunting before they settle on the one to line with feathers and use for laying. The dummy nests are known as “cock’s nests”. We once found a neat little cock’s nest, never used, in a honeysuckle when cutting it back in autumn.
Recently two wrens have been very busy in my garden, nipping off pieces of the feathery leaves on a Japanese Acer for their nest. I am assuming they are a pair and are finishing off a proper nest with a rather fashionable red lining. The nest used for laying is usually well camouflaged to blend into a hole in a tree, ivy or bank.
Wrens usually have two or three broods a year and a clutch of five or six white eggs with red or brown spots. The fledging period is about 16 or 17 days.
I remember we had a rowdy bunch of young wrens around last July. It was raining heavily and three of them climbed up the brick wall of the house next door and sheltered under the guttering, peeping loudly. The parents were desperately trying to get them to go home as it was getting dark, but they were clinging to the wall for dear life…
Adult wrens have a VERY loud voice for such a small bird and their sharp clicking always reminds me of ball-bearings knocking together. They also have a very beautiful, sweet song, which you can hear here on the RSPB site.
The wren is looked on so fondly in Britain that from 1937 until 1956, when the last one was minted, the smallest British coin, the farthing (worth a quarter of an old penny), had a picture of a wren, Britain’s smallest common bird (the firecrest and goldcrest are smaller, but not that common).
The wren has many common names. Personally I always just think “little Jenny wren”, but in some parts of the country it may be called Bobby, Kitty or Sally. In Ireland and Scotland it is a “wran” and in Cornwall a “wranny”.
Other nicknames come from its short tail: cutty, scutty, skiddy or stumpy; or from its small size: tiddy, tidley, titmeg or tintie; or from its voice: crackadee, cracket, crackil, chitty, or jitty; or from no idea what reason: gilliver wren, tope, stag, guradnan or Our Lady’s Hen.
There is much folklore and tradition associated with the wren. It is mentioned in “Who killed Cock Robin?” – the wrens volunteer to carry the pall.
The Irish saints considered it as a magic bird and the Druids a bird of prophecy. It has also always been unlucky to kill a wren. Which makes it all the more strange that in the days after Christmas many societies used to have “wren hunts” and in many cases the wren was actually killed. Nowadays a fake wren is used on Wren Day.
In Ireland in particular, the hunting of the wren is associated with the song The Wren in the Furze.
Edward Armstrong, writing in the 1970s, believed the wren cult reached Britain in the Bronze Age, travelling from the Mediterranean along prehistoric trade routes. Perhaps at the time of new year the wren hunt represents the death of the dark earth powers and the beginning of a new season of light and life. It is also a time of “misrule” when tradition is turned on its head and it becomes “OK” to kill this beloved bird.
There are many associations between wrens and saints, some good, some bad. A wren nested in St Malo’s cloak and he didn’t wear it again until the chicks were fledged. I have a soft spot for this story, as St Malo (or Maclou) was said to have come from my home county of Gwent and he voyaged with St Brendan.
On the other hand, a wren warned of the escape of St Stephen, flying into the guard’s face, bringing about the death of the first Christian martyr. The day after Christmas, when many wren hunts take place, is of course the Feast of Stephen.
Finally, there’s a story in Ireland that a wren hopping up and down on a drum apparently alerted the Danish of an Irish attack on Doolinn and centuries later similarly warned Cromwell of an attack by the Irish.
Such a lot going on in such a small bird. Its name also happens to be that of Wiltshire born Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), who designed St Paul’s Cathedral.