Saturday, 27 January 2018

Tails Up!

By a clever contrivance, feathers is the blog theme in this week of the annual RSPB nationwide bird census, held traditionally at the end of January. I like to imagine our feathered friends look forward to it as much as we do. The Big Birdwatch week-end certainly provides them with a bit of a feast and a boost for the cold days that lie ahead.

Many people are under the impression that the wren (pictured below) is something of a rarity in these islands. That's possibly because it's a shy little creature, more often heard than seen, whose diet is insects and spiders, not standard fare on your average bird table or hanging feeder. In fact, the wren (troglodytes troglodytes)  is one of the most populous birds in the UK, our commonest nesting bird with somewhere in the region of 8 to 10 million pairs. That statistic surprised me, I must say.

According to my trusty Popular Handbook of British Birds (which requires quite big hands as it's a hardback, runs to 500 pages and weighs a ton), this tiny brown bird with its distinctive round shape and perkily cocked tail is easily identified even in silhouette. It flies with a quick whirring action of its short, stubby wings, usually in straight lines and never very far. When hunting for food, it does so low down or on the ground, mouse-like, probing nooks and crannies with its long and slender beak. It is a bustling creature by nature and never still for a minute except at night when it roosts in holes or crevices - which is how it earned its genus name of troglodytes from the Greek for cave-dweller.

Even though it is tiny, at under 10cm (about 3.5 inches), the wren is not the smallest bird in the land; the relatively rare firecrest is slightly smaller and the fairly common goldcrest is tinier still. However, for its size, the wren packs an extraordinary sonic punch. Its song is remarkably loud, a strident, prolonged mixture of notes usually terminating in a series of high trills and delivered with such force that the little bird trembles with the sheer effort. It sings at virtually any time of the year and its song is as distinctive as its shape (check out the audio link at the end of the blog).
 
the beautiful little bird with the big voice and the perky tail
When it comes to mating matters, the male part-builds a series of nests around his territory, loose balls woven out of dried leaves, moss and grass and then goes all out to attract a female. She chooses one of the nests which he then completes, lining it with more moss, hair and feathers to her satisfaction. (The rest of the nests are left unfinished.) The female lays a clutch of five or six eggs, white with reddish speckles and the pair raises two such broods of offspring in the mating season. Wren numbers decline when there is a harsh winter, their small size making them particularly vulnerable; but the population climbs again in more temperate years such as the one we're experiencing now.

In addition to our British - or more strictly Eurasian - wren (troglodytes troglodytes), the genus can be found around the world in nearly one hundred distinct regional varieties. Some of the names are so fanciful (to the point of being poetic) that I had to list a few here. They include the Black-Bellied wren and the contrasting White-Bellied wren, a Black-Throated wren, a Cactus wren, Canebrake wren, Marsh wren, the Musician wren and more specifically Flutist wren, a Peruvian wren, a Tooth-Billed wren and my three favourites the Whiskered wren, the Giant wren (really!) and the Happy wren (lovely). I kid you not.

From my childhood I still remember the wren as featured on the reverse of the British farthing, a small but iconic bird for the lowest denomination of pre-decimal coin, worth a quarter of a pre-decimal penny. (There were 960 farthings in a pound - and millennials think that the 5p is a fussy little coin!) Wren farthings were minted from 1937 until 1956 and ceased to be legal tender in 1960, ten years before decimalisation. It was the wren's appearance on the farthing that gave me the starting point for today's poem.



Minted
As bold as brass
but mostly quite unseen,
this tiny bright-eyed passerine
when in the mood
stumps up, no quarter given
and throwing wide its slender bill
explodes into a song
of fiercest joy.

Once started,
nothing can alloy
the richness of its rill,
a stream of rapid notes
poured forth like silver
on vibrating air
to the final flourish
of a rising triple-trill.

To coin such phrases
makes its little body shake
and nothing quite compares
in terms of size to volume
with the thrilling sally
of the jaunty wren,
or the happy silence
it leaves in its wake.


To listen to the distinctive sound of the little bird, click on this hyperlink: wren singing

Thanks for reading. Look out for our feathered friends, S ;-)
Reactions:

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a lovely poem (for a lovely bird).

Anonymous said...

I did my hour scanning the garden on Saturday afternoon as the morning was a wash-out. I was pleased to see coal tits and greenfinches this year but not many sparrows. I didn't spot a wren either.

Anonymous said...

Another most interesting blog, Steve. I wonder what is the strangest bird readers have ever seen in their garden? (not necesserily on bird count day). Mine was a hawfinch.

Steve Rowland said...

According to Winterwatch (BBC2 30/01) this is a good year to see hawfinches as many more than usual are over-wintering in the UK.

As for strange birds in my garden, not counting my soon-to-be-ex wife, I'd have to say a heron. It was mobbed to the ground by a phalanx of gulls; no other reason for it to be there as I don't have a pond.

Anonymous said...

He's a feisty cove, is the wren! I really like "explodes into a song of fiercest joy".

Adele said...

This is such a clever little poem. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

A splendid read. It has brightened my day. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful blog.

Anonymous said...

I love this blog!