“Tiny, plump bird, mainly russet-brown with a pale breast. It is constantly on the move and has a very loud trilling song that is heard throughout the year.”
– Peter Tate
Whilst today we tend to think of the robin as Britain’s favourite bird, the wren is a stronger contender for the title. They were found on farthings, featured on stamps, and as we’ll see there’s a range of folklore about them. But before we get to that, let’s have a look at the wren itself.
They are very helpful to us as they eat insects and spiders, and their small size allows them into little cracks and crevices that other birds can’t get to. In winter, food is scarcer, possibly hidden under heaps of snow or frozen soil. Because of their size, they are vulnerable to the cold and combat this by huddling together and becoming more friendly as the weather turns. This increased sociability is important as a cold winter can kill anything from a quarter to three quarters of the population. However, when times are better, males are territorial and defend their patch from other males. There is a season for coming together and a season for putting yourself first.
Despite being one of the UK’s most widespread birds, found almost everywhere except the most remote or highest parts of the country, it is more often heard rather than seen. There is an invisibility here, an ability to slip between worlds that reminds me of shamans.
Little Jenny wren, small and inconspicuous, has a surprisingly powerful voice. This is because they have an organ called a syrinx with a resonating chamber and can make use of virtually all of the air in their lungs.
“I listen soundlessly. I breathe in for this wren, but then I am rapt in beauty and each note reminds me of the jewels I had in my hand as a child when I pretended that drops of water were diamonds and I was surrounded by priceless treasure. Our best applause: first silence, then song.
“He is the smallest bird I see in these woods, but his song is the loudest and this is why, openheartedly, simply, gratefully, admiringly, I love him. He dazzles my ears.””
– Jay Griffiths
One lesson of the wren, is that your voice is much more powerful than you think, speak up, sing loudly, don’t let your (perceived) smallness stop you. What you have to say matters, it will make a difference.
“even on uninhabited island rocks … [the Wren’s] … lively song relieves the awful solitudes.”
– Ussher & Warren (1900)
There may also be a message here around focusing on what you hear, not what you see. I’ve mentioned our vision-centricness before and how important it can be to tune into all our senses. Play some music, light a candle, whatever it is that helps you connect to yourself and feel grounded.
Once lucky enough to have seen off other males and found a female to mate with, the male wren presents the female with a choice of nests. She selects her preferred one and lines it with feathers. Once the little eggs are hatched, both parents take a role in feeding the chicks. It was this cooperative behaviour that led older societies to associate the wren with sharing the work load. Today it may be a reminder not to get stuck into gendered ideas of who should do what household tasks. Share the work and play to your strengths, even if they aren’t what stereotypes suggest you should be doing.
A Wren’s Nest by William Wordsworth starts with a beautiful stanza describing the wren’s nest, a place of comfort and of safety, snug and cosy. The protective feeling of being wrapped up warm in blankets.
AMONG the dwellings framed by birds
In field or forest with nice care,
Is none that with the little Wren’s
In snugness may compare.
Much of what I read about the wren, and know from my own observations, suggests a delight in the seemingly ordinary, an enchantment with life, an enthusiasm and a joy that comes just from being in the world. This is definitely something we can all learn from. What brings you alive? What makes your heart sing? What feeds your soul? What nourishes your heart?
When it comes to folklore, the best place to start is the name. The latin name is Troglodtyes Troglodyes and means cave dweller whilst the word wren comes from the anglo saxon word wrœnno which means lascivious.
A common, much repeated piece of wren folklore is about the king or queen of the birds. A Scottish tale of the eagle and the wren involves all the birds gathering and deciding they wanted a queen, but it was impossible to decide on who. Some wanted eagle, others wanted wren and eventually wren suggested a test to decide the matter, whichever of the them could fly the highest would be queen. Everyone was sick of talking about it so agreed, even though it seemed an odd suggestion from little wren. Both birds took to the air. When wren had got as high up as her little wings could take her, she landed very softly on eagles back. Eagle continued to fly higher and higher until she could go no higher. When she returned to the ground, the birds declared that eagle would be their queen as she flew the highest. The wren poked her head out of eagle’s feathers and said that no, it should be her because when eagle could fly no more, she had flapped off eagles back and thus had flown higher. Whilst I feel like this was a great case of intellect over physical size, the other birds didn’t agree and said that eagle was their queen. Similar tales are found around the world, including Ireland and a version from Zulu lore. Some versions centre around finding a king but I like the idea of the wren as queen better!
“The robin red breast and the wren, Are God Almighty’s cock and hen.”
The wren as queen is also echoed in the idea of the robin and wren as god’s birds. Traditionally, the wren has been seen as the wife of the robin and where robin is said to have brought fire to the land, the wren is said to have brought water. Because of this duality, you might want to consider the robin as well.
In Scotland the wren is called ‘The Lady of Heaven’s hen’ and if maltreated cows milk would be stained with blood. Similarly, French peasants supposedly called it poulette de Dieu, or god’s chicken, and thought that the wren was at the stable when Jesus was born and had covered him in moss and feathers.
Other beliefs around this little bird include it being lucky if a wren’s feather falls on you, if you hear one singing it’s a sign of good fortune and it was thought that wren feathers would protect you against various perils, especially if you were at sea.
Unfortunately, other stories around the wren and the sea aren’t so positive, at least not for the wren herself. It was thought that a sea sprite haunted shoals of herring and could conjure up storms before flying away in the form of a wren. Obviously, this didn’t make the wren popular among some fisherfolk… In fact, Manx fishermen took dead wrens to sea with them as protection from the storms.
They may also have been concerned because of a story from the Isle of Man about a fairy, who was really a siren, that so beautiful and had such a lovely voice that she lured and charmed many men, drowning them. Eventually a brave knight was able to withstand her and tried to destroy her but she escaped in the form of a wren. After this, she was condemned to appear in this form each year until a mortal could succeed in killing her.
This led to the strange annual practice of hunting the wren, a tradition associated with St Stephens day. A wren was killed, hung on a pole and carried in procession. everyone who gave the bearers money got a feather for protection. This was carried out beyond the Isle of Man and we have an associated rhyme which comes from Ireland:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St Stephens Day was caught in the furze
Come, give us a bumper, or give us a cake
Or give us a copper, for charity’s sake
Despite, or because of, this idea of the wren as powerful and destructive, we have superstitions which protect the wren. In England, to kill a wren, or to disturb its nest would mean you’d have bad fortune by the end of the year. If you tried to steal wren’s eggs or chicks, your home would be struck by lightening. The latter is explained by one blogger as being because the wren was sacred to the thunder god Taranis who used lightning as a weapon for protection. It was also said the wren was sacred to Taliesin, the great bard from welsh mythology, quite possibly because of the wren’s beautiful song which, like the nightingale, inspired poets and musicians across time.
Another illustration of the wren’s power is seen when the evil forces of the deep dark cold days of winter are appeased by a sacrificed wren. You really shouldn’t go overlooking something or someone just because of their size. If this little bird can summon storms and banish winter, what can you do?