Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces the next in this series of informative articles.
Latin name: Troglodytes troglodytes, which means “cave dweller” in English
This familiar species is listed by the BTO as the UK’s commonest breeding bird, with c11 million breeding pairs, and was known to my mother as Jenny Wren. The wren has had a very wide range of regional and folk names – at least 80 that I could find. They include Jenny Crudle, Tricker, Two Fingers, Stumpy Toddy, Our Lady’s Hen, Dicky Pug, God Almighty’s Hen and Tidy Creeper.
In North America, our wren is called the Winter Wren and experts think that our wren may have originated from here, crossing at a time when we were linked together. I well remember taking a group of visiting American birdwatchers around the Pits and pointing out our wren, only to be asked “But which one, Trevor?” in the US Peterson Field Guide, over 30 different wrens are listed.
The wren features strongly in Celtic folklore and the tradition of wren and robin hunting was a great social “sport”, often carried out on New Year’s Day. The object was to catch and kill as many of both species as possible. The reason for this activity is lost in time, but the ritual survived into the 20th century in France, the Isle of Man, Wales and parts of Scotland.
Back to the present day. We have resident, non-migratory sub-species on the Faroes, St Kilda, Fair Isle and Shetland, where on many visits, I considered that local wrens were larger and had a rather louder and different song. Strangely, on Shetland an old folk tale tells us that wrens are too much like mice to lay eggs! Yet another non-migratory resident breeds in Iceland, but is not common.
I was interested to find out that the wren is a migratory species in most of its northerly range. The migration of wrens is not fully understood, but I know from experience that in October large “falls” of birds included many wrens at Spurn Point, at the same time as the goldcrests and woodcocks arrived. On the East coast of Yorkshire, the goldcrest is known by country folk as the “woodcock pilot” from the legend that goldcrests hitch a lift over the North Sea on the backs of the woodcock! Maybe not true…
Domestically, the wren is a familiar garden bird in our villages, but from March to July this year, during regular watching, I only heard one single wren! I have never seen a wren on a bird table – have you? So, despite being our commonest bird, many people have never actually seen one!
This is the time of year when wrens roost together in large numbers and, where the species is common, up to 30 birds have been counted – nest boxes, old birds’ nests and holes in trees are all commonly used.
Come the spring, males make numerous “cock” nests and the female then will choose which nest she prefers. Some males may have up to six mates in a season – no wonder we have so many wrens! Having said that, severe winters can decimate our UK wren population, which may take up to 5 years to rebuild.
This is one of our most intriguing bird species, and you can read more about it in:
“The Wren” by Edward A. Armstrong, Collins New Naturalist series 1955
This is a wonderful book about what is, for many, a common but little-known British bird.