The leaves are mostly all fallen now and the garden’s trees are looking bare and spindly. The freshly denuded branches allow for better views of the birds. In their flocks we mainly see sparrows, chaffinches and starlings; in pairs song thrushes and blackbirds. But the robin and the wren are always on their own.
It is the wren to which I am most drawn. A tiny brown ball, it spryly flits about the branches and darts among the dead leaves on the ground like a little mouse. Always, its tail is jutting upwards towards the sky. Its berating song is louder than those of a lot of other birds. So loud that it seems a strange utterance from such a small creature. It comically seems to bristle with an impatient indignation which endears me to it.
Its beautiful binomial name, troglodytes troglodytes, meaning “cave dweller cave dweller” intensifies the comedy. It is so named for the bird’s habit of disappearing into little holes in the undergrowth and nesting in dark recesses inaccessible to us.
There is an odd duality to the wren in regards to the folklore surrounding it. In popular belief it has been identified as the feminine counterpart to the masculine robin. This is illustrated by the popular folk name of Jenny Wren, and in the rhyme:
The Robin and the Wren
Are God’s cock and hen.
Yet there are times when the wren is referred to in the masculine. It is sometimes known as the “king of birds” which is a moniker probably derived from an ancient fable. In the story it is decided that the title of “King” should be given to the bird that can fly the highest. The eagle appears to have won until the wren whirrs out of the eagle’s plumage where it has been hiding and gets just a little higher. The fable is possibly remembered in the German common name of Zaunkönig, or “hedge king”. It is not just in the German name either. Echoes of its regality exist in the Welsh, Manx, Dutch and other names. A name which is at odds with its humble appearance. Yet another aspect of its duality.
Also, a dichotomy exists in the wren’s sacredness. At most times of the year it is considered bad luck to disturb a wren or its nest, as expounded in the rhymes:
Hunt a Robin or a Wren,
Never prosper boy or man.
He that hurts a Robin or a Wren
Will never prosper on sea or land.
However, it is in the winter when it seems to have become acceptable to at least ritually kill a wren. In Ireland, England and France, usually on St Stephen’s day, the 26th December, there was a ceremony which was known as the “Wren Hunt”. There were many variants to the ceremony, but in most cases the wren was hunted through the hedges with sticks called “libbets” usually by unmarried men known as “wren-boys”. Once one had been caught, presumably dead or near death, it would be carried around from door to door inside a hollowed out turnip, or a specially made cage made to look like a miniature home known as a “wren-house”. Sometimes the poor bird was ritually dismembered. The wren-boys would sing or dance at each house in return for food or drink, similar to the practice of wassailing.
The fact that it was thought acceptable to kill a wren on St Stephen’s day may derive from the legend that a wren awoke the soldiers guarding St Stephen, alerting them to his attempted escape from trial. However, there are many different explanations, and it is quite possible that the ritual predates the coming of Christianity to Europe.
Fortunately, in those places where the Wren Hunt is still carried out, the real bird has been replaced with a model, and the bird’s status is “of least concern” in conservation terms.
Contradictions abound in the traditions of the wren: male and female, humble and kingly, unassuming and cunning, sacred and sacrificial, tiny and loud, serious and comical. I wonder if it is aware of all the labels we give it as it gobbles spiders in the bushes.