Of all the birds in the hedgerow that might qualify for that epithet, beloved of birders, little brown job (lbj), there is one above all that stands out. Not so much for its visual impact – it is indeed little and brown, and it spends much of its time flitting in and out of dense undergrowth such as dense ivy and is difficult to see – but for its song. The wren is justly famous for its mighty vocal prowess.
Not that its song has much in the way of variety. It has pretty much one song lasting just a few seconds and repeated over and over, Good job it’s a nice song, because it blasts it out at a volume that is loud enough to drown out a jet plane or a road drill. It’ll do it all year round, too.
The wren might be diminutive in size and mighty in song, but it has other qualities that mark it out. The male is an attentive lover and dedicated parent, albeit to a number of broods. During the mating season he will build half a dozen or more nests and invite a female to inspect them. If she chooses one she will stay and he will help her rear her chicks, though he will have other females to care for as well. If she doesn’t, well there are still those nests to advertise: sooner or later another female will take him up. Meanwhile he will violently defend his territory against other males. Small he might be but he is one of the most macho of birds.
More complimentary is Shakespeare’s reference to the tenacity of the bird in defending its home. In Macbeth Lady Macduff wonders why her husband has seemingly deserted her:
…He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch. For the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
All is the fear and nothing is the love,
As little is the wisdom, where the flight
So runs against all reason.
Macbeth, Act 4, scene 2
Sadly for her, though her husband might have had good reason to be away she will soon find herself unprotected and at the mercy of a determined aggressor.
The wren has a complex relationship with human gender. Widely known as Jenny Wren (presumably a reference to its diminutive size and pretty appearance), it is also known as ‘Zaunkönig’ (‘hedge-king’) in Germany and by the old Danish name of ‘Vrensk’ (‘uncastrated’) Ancient Romans called it Regulus, or ‘little king’.
The wren has a long history of association with people, and hence a long history in folklore. Its scientific name Troglodytes means cave dweller, which suits its habit of using any nook or cranny in which to feed or breed. The bird has one of largest range of habitats in the northern hemisphere, and was first recorded in Anglo Saxon times, though the relationship probably goes back further than that. In Anglo Saxon the bird’s name was ‘dreán’ or ‘draoi éan’ which means ‘druid bird’.
Quite why the wren should have particular significance for the druids isn’t quite clear, though it might as well be the wren as any other bird that associates so closely with humans. Wrens, like robins, nest in all sorts of places and make no distinction between the nooks and crannies of human dwellings or the hidden, often damp recesses of woodlands and hedgerows.
John Clare, of course, had something to say about the wren, which for him sang as sweetly as that other more famous lbj, the nightingale, and was a companion to him in his sometime troglodytic life.
Why is the cuckoo’s melody preferred
And nightingale’s rich song so fondly praised
In poet’s rhymes? Is there no other bird
Of nature’s minstrelsy that oft hath raised
One’s heart to extacy and mirth as well?
I judge not how another’s taste is caught:
With mine, there’s other birds that bear the bell
Whose song hath crowds of happy memories brought.
Such the wood-robin singing in the dell
And little wren that many a time hath sought
Shelter from showers in huts where I did dwell
In early spring the tennant of the plain
Tenting my sheep and still they come to tell
The happy stories of the past again.
Lovely as this is, a more subtle acknowledgement of the wren’s (or indeed any creature’s) association and impact on the imagination is in this more recent poem by Michael Hartnett
A Necklace of Wrens
When I was very young
I found a nest
Its chirping young
were fully fledged.
They rose and re-alighted
around my neck,
Made in the wet meadow
a feather necklet.
To them I was not human
but a stone or tree:
I felt a sharp wonder
they could not feel.
That was when the craft came
which demands respect.
Their talons left on me
scars not healed yet.