Love is in the air!

Spring is coming and soon love will be in the air!  Whether it’s the pheromones of animals or the pollen of plants, the air around us is positively brimming with the scent of reproduction.

Winged creatures like butterflies often engage in courtship flights, dancing around each other as part of a pre-copulation ritual.  The courtship ritual of the bald eagle involves locking talons and tumbling toward earth…  And then there are insects which engage in aerobatic sex, mid air, such as flies and dragonflies.

When it comes to humans (and other animals) we all have a unique smell, a chemical signature that we refer to as pheromones.  They play a role in who we are attracted to which I think is fairly well known, but also, probably lesser known, is that they also help us to identify people we are related to – useful if you want to avoid sleeping with your secret cousin that no one knew about… Having different genetic make up means healthier children and less inbreeding which is why we’ve evolved to detect this.  Couples which are more genetically similar have fewer orgasms which sounds pretty rubbish but things go one step further and couples who are more genetically alike also have a higher rate of cheating…  Basically, evolution is doing everything it can to reduce the chance of inbreeding.

Pheromones are also used to help a guy to detect where in her menstrual cycle a woman is and his body releases testosterone according to ovulation status.

However, the use of hormonal contraception appears to be changing how humans react to these chemical signatures.  When taking birth control pills, the natural ability to distinguish between males who are genetically alike and genetically different is disrupted and instead, women are attracted to the males who are most similar.  Verdolin gives a great example:

“I was discussing this with my friend Stacey, who exclaimed, “That must be why I couldn’t stand the smell of my ex-husband!”  She went on to explain that when she met her first husband she had been taking birth control pills.  Several years into their marriage, after she discontinued the pill, not only was she unable to get pregnant, but she no longer cared for the smell of her husband.”

Aside: pheromones are found in underarm hair and public hair so maybe go au naturale if you’re seeking a partner?

Animals use pheromones to communicate with each other, to mark their territory and to induce aggression.  They are also used in parental bonding, to keep group behaviour in check and of course to attract mates – some creatures can even smell out virgins.  They are also used to mark your mate in order to keep away other potential mates.  Squirrels secrete pheromones onto their partners onto their partner to tell other males that she’s taken.  Queen bees use pheromones to control hive behaviour and stop workers from reproducing.  Plants use pheromones to attract pollinators, for example a kind of orchid can mimic bee pheromones to pollinate them.

Male lemmings can not only sniff out a female who’s ready to mate, but they can also distinguish between those who have mated already and those who have not.

“From beetles to bees and lizards, females do give off a different scent if they have already mated or if they are ready to mate.”
– Verdolin

A large number of male creatures will include anti-aphrodisiac pheromones in their bodily secretions so that the female they are mating will have less interest in sex.  The pheromones can also make her less attractive to other males.

What of other ways that love is in the air?  Well, plants can reproduce in a couple of ways, both involving the air; insect pollination and wind pollination.  The latter means that large amounts of pollen are released to the breeze in the hope that they find another plant to fertilise.  Whilst this does mean hayfever for many of us, it’s nice to think that it’s all in the aid of making baby trees and flowers!

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“Mum, who do you love best?” – Parental favouritism in the animal kingdom

Whilst this is a question we tend to think of as being asked by a child with siblings, it turns out, animal parents have favourites too…

For example, there’s a species of budgie that regurgitates food for its young and males will feed in response to chicks begging whereas females will seek out the smallest offspring and prioritise them.  In bearded vultures, it really does pay to be the favourite; it’s common for parents to only feed the first born chick…  But it’s not just size and birth order that parents prioritise.  Sticking with the bird world, let’s have a look at a few more examples.

Eastern bluebird dads favour their sons, protecting them from danger whilst exposing their daughters.  But sons aren’t equal either, the baby which is brightest in colour will garner dads protection more so than his duller brother.  Mums on the other hand didn’t discriminate.  If we turn to coots, we find much the same, with parents preferentially feeding nestlings which have ornamental plumes over their duller nestmates.  But it isn’t always about how attractive the offspring are:

“In birds, female blue tits, for instance, are better parents to the offspring they had with sexy males.  Not only that, but if the male they have mated with has his colouring dulled, the equivalent of being made less attractive, the female will actively reduce her efforts to feed their offspring.”
– Verdolin

So, what’s going on with parents?  Why do they play favourites with their children?

Well, what resources are available is an essential part of understanding this.  If you have five chicks and food is scarce, you could split it all equally and end up with five slightly less healthy chicks, or you could allocate them in an unequal way and thus play favourites with your children.

With chinstrap penguins who have more than one chick, they will make their kids chase them for food.  The chick that wins the race gets the food and the one that lags behind will ultimately die.  It sounds incredibly harsh but if you only have enough food for one chick, you need to make sure it goes to the one who has the highest chance of surviving to adulthood and having their own chicks.  This explains why parents tend to favour the fastest and strongest of their young, but what about those eastern bluebird dads and the female blue tits?

This type of favouritism, based on appearances, is again about trying to ensure that your lineage will continue.  With the blue tits, sexy males mean sexy children who in turn will have more sex and hence more chicks themselves.  By putting more resources into caring for the chicks from the sexy male, the mummy blue tit is worker harder to ensure her young will become healthy, sexy and successful breeders themselves.  For bluebirds, the females prefer to mate with brighter males and thus in the example above, where dad is trying to protect his brightest son, he is attempting to protect the son who has the best chance of mating when he grows up.

You might be wondering though, why are daddy bluebirds so concerned with their sons and not their daughters.  It’s not just that bluebirds want to have daddy son time, it happens in other species as well.  For example, wandering albatrosses feed their sons more than their daughters and I’m sure there are many more examples out there of dads putting their effort into ensuring their sons grow up to be big, strong, sexy adults.  Essentially it comes down to wanting to continue the family line and sexy males (in species where an individual male has more sex than an individual female) will achieve that.

But it’s not even just after birth that parents play favourites, in some species there can be a disproportionate ratio of males and females born, taking the idea of parental preference to an extreme.  One example of this is the red deer which has more sons if mum is in good condition and more daughters is she is afflicted by parasites, ill health, in a lower rank etc.  This means that more dominant females have more sons than their non dominant counterparts, something that we see with macaques as well.

The Trivers-Willard hypothesis suggests an explanation for this favouritism.  The hypothesis is that with conditions are great, females should give birth to and invest in raising sons over daughters.  When conditions are poorer, the reverse should occur.  As with the other types of favouritism we’ve looked at, this is about ensuring that your children have lots of children and your line continues.  To understand why the Trivers-Willard hypothesis might hold, we need to note a few things:

  • If a mother is in great condition, she is more likely to have a child who is in great condition.
  • If a child is in great condition, they have a better chance of surviving to adulthood.
  • If the species is such that males have the potential to produce more offspring than females, then being sexy is important. If you aren’t a sexy male, then you might not attract any females, thus you won’t have any children and essentially the resources that your mother chose to give you are wasted.  Basically, mum would have been better having a daughter.

Essentially, a male in great condition will have significantly more offspring than a female in the same condition and thus is a better investment.  A male in poorer condition will potentially have less offspring than a female in the same condition and so is a bad choice to invest in.

Whilst it may not be of comfort to you if you aren’t the favourite child, at least you know you’re not alone… And just in case you were wondering, its thought that two thirds to three quarters of human parents favour one child over another…

Suggested reading:

The Virgin Marys of the Animal Kingdom; they don’t need no man!

Let’s start with a couple of basic definitions!  There are lots of more specific and technical terms that I could go into but I won’t.  Suffice to say, if you are interested in the biological processes at work, there is information out there on that.  For my purposes, I think there are probably just two definitions we need to be familiar with:

Parthenogenesis is a type of asexual reproduction in which a female gamete or egg cell develops into an individual without fertilisation.

In asexual reproduction, one individual produces offspring that are genetically identical to itself.

Thought Co

It all gets very complicated at a cellular level and not being a biologist I wouldn’t want to even attempt to explain it but I wanted to make sure that it was clear that parthenogenesis and asexual reproduction are not always interchangeable.

The word parthenogenesis means virgin creation and these virgin births are known to occur in a range of species including many insects, snakes, lizards, Komodo dragons and even, rarely, in turkeys.  In lab conditions, mammals have had virgin births but only when artificially helped by researchers.

To help us understand the realities of being a virgin mother, I wanted to look at a few examples, starting with a population of Bynoes gecko in Australia gave up entirely on sexual reproduction and are now an all-female species.  This type of reproduction tends to occur in harsh climates – arid deserts and arctic areas – and are almost exclusively hybrids.  The thinking is that the population of one species got split and evolved separately before coming back together.  The two groups then reproduced sexually, creating sterile hybrids who over time evolved to reproduce without sex.

On a spectrum of reproduction, it’s possible that whiptail lizards would come next.  There are as many as 50 types of whiptail lizard that reproduce without sex, but despite this, the exclusively female New Mexico whiptail still engage in ‘fake sex’ to be stimulated in order to reproduce.  Whilst not essential, the lizards that are stimulated lay more eggs.

Then there are the animals that engage in both types of reproduction.  Queen bees produce male drones by parthenogenesis but workers are made by sexually reproducing with drones.  Boa constrictors normally reproduce sexually, but not always and komodo dragons, sharks, turkeys and swordfish also primarily reproduce sexually but parthenogenesis can account for up to 5% of babies.  Note that it some species, females are able to store sperm for a considerable length of time after encountering a male and so genetic testing is required to confirm parthenogenesis.

The advantage of asexual reproduction is that a female can restart a population in the absence of a male – think about a female which has found itself on an island with no other creatures of the same species.  It’s also easier for an initially small population to take over an area.  Other benefits include not having to expend energy finding, attracting and keeping a mate and when babies are born, they are made up solely from mums genes.

Whilst an all female population sounds enticing, there are downsides…  clones are unable to evolve and adapt genetically to change, there is an increase risk of being affected by parasites and disease.  As the entire population are all vulnerable to the same external factors, one small factor can result in them all dying.  As I noted above, mammals don’t naturally engage in parthenogenesis – we can’t reproduce without male and female dna… even just one missing gene can result in conditions such as angelmans syndrome and prada willi syndrome.

On the whole, species that reproduce without sex, don’t last that long:

“from time to time organisms evolve to give up sex, reproducing asexually instead.  When this happens, any genetic differences between a parent and a child are, by definition, due to mutation only.  At first asexual organisms often flourish.  But their glory is fleeting.  For reasons that remain mysterious, the loss of sex is almost always followed by swift extinction,  apparently, without sex you are doomed.”
– Olivia Judson

Of course, there are always exceptions, and in this case, one of the exceptions is the bdelloid rotifer which is an all female species that has been cloning itself for about 85 million years (Judson).  To overcome the problem of identical genetics, they get new genes by picking up DNA from the environment.  This protects them from the main dilemmas facing most parthenegenic species.

Suggested Reading:

A recipe for life

“Hence without parents by spontaneous birth
Rise the first specks of animated earth”
– E. Darwin, 1803

Spontaneous generation is the idea that life can arise from non living material at any given moment and one of the earliest references I found to the concept was from Anaximander in the 3rd century BC.  Not long after, Aristotle was writing in the 4th century about eels.  They troubled him as he could find no trace of their sex.  He concluded that eels “proceeds neither from pair, nor from an egg” but that instead they were born of the “earth’s guts”, that is spontaneously emerging from mud.  Aristotle believed that worm casts were actually embryonic eels boiling out of the ground.  Pliny the Elder had another idea, that eels would rub themselves against rocks and the scrapings would come to life.  Other eel theories included young emerging from the gills of fish, from dew or being created by electrical disturbances.  The reason that eels caused natural history such issues is because of their lifecycle which starts out at sea, away from the eyes of man.

Aristotle also thought that spontaneous generation applied to a few other creatures, often small, including flies and frogs, which were considered to be lower life forms.  Some were thought to be produced in putrefying mud and dung, in wood, in excrement, and dew.  Later, naturalists would claim that insects spontaneously generated out of old wax, vinegar, damp dust and books.  Even decaying larger animals were thought to generate these smaller lifeforms.  Horses were thought to be transmogrified into hornets, crocodiles into scorpions, mules into locusts and bulls into bees.  Rats were said to come from garbage, aphids from bamboo, flies from sweat and ants from sour wine.

Athanasius Kircher included ‘recipes’ for life in his 1665 book, for example, to create frogs, you needed to collect clay from a ditch where frogs have lived, incubate it in a large vessel, add rainwater and voila!

Jan Baptist van Helmont in the 17th century tells us how to make poisonous, predatory arachnids; fill a hole in a brick with basil, cover with a second brick and leave in the sun.  To make mice, he instructs us to place wheat and water in a flask, cover with the skirt of an unclean woman, leave for 21 days and there you’ll have baby mice.  Another mouse suggestion was that they emerged from the earth and in some places you could see them fully formed as far as the breast and front feet, the rest still just mud.

To make flies, you collect fly cadaver’s, crush them slightly, put them on a brass plate and sprinkle with honey water.  You can make bees by killing a bull, putting the corpse on branches and herbs during spring and by summer you’d have your bees.  Oysters would grow from slime, cockles from sand and salamanders from fire.

Whilst all of this sounds absurd to us today, if you put yourself in their shoes, I think you’d struggle to find a better theory.  After all, caterpillars don’t have parents that resemble them, and when they die (turn into a chrysalis), they create a butterfly.  Mushrooms grow from dead logs, mould appears out of nowhere and then there are the ‘annual’ fishes of Africa and South America:

“Their lifestyle is almost magical.  They live in puddles, ponds and ditches that dry up for part of the year.  When the puddles dry up, they die.  Only their eggs survive, buried under the dried mud, waiting for the next rains.  Collect mud, add water – and presto, you get fish.  You can see why people believed in spontaneous generation.”
– Olivia Judson

Over time, the idea of spontaneous generation began to be questioned.  In 1646 a sceptic was ridiculed for questioning the idea but Francesco Redi would seek to disprove the idea that maggots grew out of raw meat with experiments in the 17th century (he still believed that living matter could create other living matter eg trees creating wasps and gallflies).  Unfortunately, his results were questioned, holes were poking in the methods and John Needham would go onto ‘prove’ via another experiment that spontaneous generation was of course real.  Needham’s experiment took gravy and heated it, then sealed the end of the flask and the idea was that nothing could survive the heat or get it as it was sealed.  When life started to form, Needham was validated in his belief.  However, he hadn’t heated the flask high enough to kill the bacteria enclosed in it so they survived the process.

Other people would work at disproving spontaneous generation including Lazzaro Spallanzani who built on the work of Redi, but it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur came onto the scene in the 19th century that the theory was conclusively disproved.

Ultimately, by investigating the theory of spontaneous generation, we would come across pasteurisation and the field of microbiology would be born.

Suggested Reading:

Animal parents: from self sacrifice to murder

In the animal kingdom, reproduction is a vast and interesting topic with many different methods having evolved.  Take for example the frog mums who let tadpoles develop in their tummy and then have to regurgitate them.  Or any one of the marsupials who give birth to jellybean sized young who then have to struggle across mum to find her pouch where lies safety and food.  I’ve written before about kangaroos and how females are essentially a baby making conveyor belt with young at various stages ‘on the go’.

Birth might sound difficult for the kangaroo but I’m betting the hyena is looking on wistfully… Female hyenas experience horrific births.  Their birth canal is a funny shape, it’s longer than most similar sized mammals and the umbilical cord is short.  This means there is a higher risk of asphyxiation, but it gets worse.  The baby’s head is too big to pass through the clitoris (hyenas have an unusual genital makeup and urination, fertilisation and birthing are all carried out through the clitoris) so when a mother gives birth, the clitoris tears.  Not just painful, this can be deadly, with estimates of over 10% of females dying the first time they give birth and more than half of cubs being stillborn.  Things don’t get much better for those cubs that survive either… they tend to arrive in litters of two and the one that is born first tends to kill the second within minutes of birth.

Not necessarily a difficult birth, but the frilled shark has to suffer pregnancy for over three years…  The babies grow a frustrating ½ inch per month and don’t emerge into the water until they reach 1 ½ to 2 feet long…

On land, the longest pregnancy falls to elephants who have to endure almost two years of pregnancy before a baby pops out but thankfully, once little ellie has arrived, the whole herd play a role in raising it.  Similarly, sea lions have collective arrangements with a nursery so they can drop off the pups and then head out to feed.  This rota system works well for sea lions but this communal approach isn’t the case for all animals.  In many species, mum and dad don’t actually engage in parenting and in others, the burden falls on just one parent.  And in some cases, this burden can literally kill mum.

Self sacrificing parents include octopus mums who guard their eggs for several months, starving during this time as they can’t leave them.  Once they hatch, the mother dies.  As sad as this is, it pales in comparison to the desert spider.  When the female desert spider lays an egg sac, her insides start to liquefy.  Once her babies hatch, she regurgitates her innards for her young to eat and nine days later, only a husk remains.

When desert spider lays an egg sac, her tissues start to degrade until the spiderlings hatch. Once this happens, she regurgitates her own liquefied insides for the babies to eat.  9 days later they finish up her innards and then head off into the world, leaving her husk behind…

For orangutans the substantial workload falls to mum who has to spend 8 years raising her babies, longer than any other animal single parent.

Whilst pregnancy and childrearing might be tough for mum, not all dads are hands off.  Indeed, in some cases, its only the male who’s involved in child rearing – the male rhea receives eggs from various females to incubate and rear and the same is true for the cassowary.

Indeed, this system – where the males look after the young from several females, and females spread their brood between several males – is common, especially among fish.
– Olivia Judson

Childcare arrangements vary throughout the natural world with some parents having no involvement, some species specialising in single parenthood and others working together to raise their children.  The type of gestation affects the possible roles for parents.  In mammals for example, where the fetus develops in the womb, there isn’t a lot that the males can do.  For birds however, dad can sit on the eggs and provide food for the chicks just as well as mum can.

Looking at a couple of egg examples, we can see there are different levels of involvement and different roles the parents can play.  The spraying characid is a fish that lays its eggs out of water – the female leaps out of water and lays eggs, then the male leaps out and fertilises them, an act which is repeated until about 300 eggs have been laid.  For the next three days, dad has to stay with them and splash the eggs with his tail to keep them from drying out.

For some leeches, parenting is the basic guarding eggs from predators but for African leeches, a kangaroo style approach has been adopted and they carry their young in a pouch, and for another type of leech, the young are glued to their parents tummy.

But moving onto mammals, we find the Dayak fruit bat where both mum and dad produce milk, taking shared responsibility for nursing their young.  Djungarian hamster males are also devoted to their babies.  They “forage for seeds which they stuff into their pouches in their cheeks; on arriving back at the burrow, they unload their cargo by pushing on the pouches with their forepaws so that seeds stream forth” (Judson).  In addition to finding the food, the males help in the birth process, acting as a midwife and helping the pups out.  They also open their airways and lick them clean, even going so far as to eat the placenta.  Male marmosets also carry out a similar role and will go on to play an active role in childrearing.

Hornbills are another devoted parent.  The female climbs into a nest in a tree and seals up the entrance so that there is only space for her beak.  She is then reliant on her partner to bring her food whilst she incubates the chicks.  Once they are born, the father must bring food for the whole family until it is time for them to emerge.  Overall, the female spends as much as 137 days cooped up in the nest.

But there’s always two sides to a story…  And on the flip side to these dedicated parents, we find infanticide.

In many species where fatherhood is clear, males will kill offspring that is not there.  Infanticide gets pesky children out of the way so that dad doesn’t have to spend resources, time and energy on raising them.  They also do this because without children around, the females get in season and thus he can get her pregnant and have children of his own.  Squirrels, wolves and primates are some of the creatures that engage in this behaviour and about 34% of gorilla infant deaths and 64% of languar infant deaths are down to infanticide (Bondar).

In species which are particularly prone to infanticide, females have evolved a number of countermeasures such as keeping babies in burrows or pouches so that males can’t get to them but there are times when even mum can’t keep their baby alive.

“In rodents, an increased incidence of infanticide is observed for males during periods of food deprivation, and for females during periods of lactation (which confers high energetic demands).”
– Carin Bondar

In coot and moorhen families, who have a large number of chicks at once, parents tend to feed the closest mouth, but if one chick becomes particularly demanding, the parents will try and discourage it by picking it up and shaking it, sometimes killing it.

In some animals, a male having a mistress can lead to the death of the children, the ultimate in wicked stepmothers!  The mistress will often murder the wife’s children and if the opportunity arises, vice versa.

“In both the house sparrow and the great reed warbler, for example, a male with two mates will help only the female whose clutch hatches first, so to ensure herself of male assistance, a savvy mistress will smash all the wife’s eggs.”
– Olivia Judson

Murder isn’t only a risk that comes from your parents; the sand shark practices intrauterine cannibalism, the biggest fetus gobbles up its embryonic siblings whilst in the womb. Whilst an extreme example, siblingcide is not uncommon in the animal kingdom.  In many invertebrates, cannibalism is the way to get rid of your pesky brothers and sisters and thus not only do you get a good meal, you also guarantee increased access to resources going forward.  Whilst not so extreme, eagles and hyenas also kill their siblings, although they wait until after birth.

Of course there are many other interesting births and parenting techniques in the animal kingdom and I could never do any more than scrape the surface here but if these exmaples have whet your appetite, try checking out some of the links below and look into seahorses, that well known fully involved dad!

Suggested reading:

Death by sex

Having talked a lot about animal sex recently, I felt it important to tip my hat to some of those creatures out there that really have the sex of their lives… Forget chocolate, these animals die because of sex, often just after copulation but even midway through the ‘romantic’ act…

How to make love to a cannibal?  Carefully.  The most touted example of cannibalistic love is the praying mantis, a species well known for females eating males after sex.  But they often go one step further and eat their mate during the act… This might seem counter-intuitive but in doing so, they get their eggs fertilised and have more fun.  Obviously the male is a bit scared and tentative as they approach and assume the position, not the best attributes for a good romp…  If however, you bite off their head… the male’s body goes into spasms which allow for sperm to be delivered and the joys of vibrations.

“Females in more than eighty other species have been caught eating their lovers before, during, or after sex.  Spiders are the most common culprits, although several other mantises, some scorpions, and certain midges also number among the guilty.”
– Olivia Judson

For orb-weaving spiders, pheromones play a key role in the male’s willingness to be cannibalised by his mate…

“When exposed to mated females, males attempt to escape much more often than those exposed to virgins.  The latter show a tendency to self-sacrifice in the name of biological fitness.”
– Carin Bondar

The combination of sex and cannibalism is attractive to some females because not only can they get their eggs fertilised but they can also have a great, nutritious meal, perfect for keeping the mum to be healthy.  To avoid death, some species of spiders which practice sexual cannibalism, males have evolved to break off their genitalia, thus plugging up the female in the hopes that it will be their sperm used in fertilising eggs.

Similarly, when male honeybees climax, their genitals are ripped from their body – the idea is that leaving behind your genitals in the queen prevents other males from mating with her and thus ensures her young are yours.  Obviously once the genitalia has been forcefully ripped from the males, they die.

It’s a big of a grey area in terms of death but in some species, the males commit themselves so much to the task of mating that they lose a sense of  themselves.  Take for example the angler fish, the males are much smaller than the females and they search the seas for a mate.  Once a female has been found, they will bite into her underbelly and fuse themselves to her permanently.

In some species, it’s the males that get carried away and kill or severely injure the females…  A flock of sheep on Ile Longue have been left to their own devices and the result is that ewes are chased and battered by the rams.  Once pinned down the males try to mount her repeatedly for hours.  If she’s lucky and the injuries and exhaustion haven’t killed her, she risks being disembowelled by giant petrels…

For some frog species, sex is a bit of an orgy.  Females gather in pools to mate, they release eggs into the water and the males squirt in their sperm.  If a female has attracted several males, they all push and shove so its their sperm that get to fertilise the eggs.  As they do so, there is a risk that the female drowns or is crushed.  A similar situation arises for some solitary bees and wasps; when the females emerge from their burrows, they are greeted by a hoard of males, all desperate to mate and in that desperation, she may end up dead.

In the rough sex gone wrong category, we can also find southern elephant seals who may end up killing their lovers by biting females on the head instead of the neck and dog mink who pierce the base of the brain instead of grabbing the scruff of the neck.

There is also the salmon, where both males and females die shortly after scattering their eggs and sperm to the rivers.  This strategy of using up all your energy and resources is called semalparity, or suicidal reproduction and is also practised by the antechinus.  The males of this species engage in an active sex frenzy for about 14 hours, and in doing so destroy their immune systems.  After mating, a lot, they suffer from internal bleeding, collapse and die.

Basically, life is tough, and sex can be tougher…  Next up I’ll be looking at parenting in the natural world; do dads play a role? who has it hardest? who engages in infantcide?

Suggested Reading:

Wren

“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?