December 2017: Nature Watch

November 24 2017

It was a chilly November day when I went to collect the last of my beautiful apples (and the ugly ones too - they taste just as good).

It was a chilly November day when I went to collect the last of my beautiful apples (and the ugly ones too - they taste just as good). Blackbirds scattered and fieldfare scolded, chaka chaka, to remind me to leave a few for them, which, of course, I always do. With these wintry birds came a sudden thought of Christmas and not just the robin but also the mighty little wren.

Jenny wren is a tiny rounded bird with a pertly up-tipped tail and a sharp beak. The male and female dress alike in drab brown but when one darts across the garden you are struck by the energy of this lively half-ounce bird. Like that other Christmas favourite it seems to contain a personality far larger than its small size would suggest. Both were protected from harm by many old taboos: ‘Kill a robin or a wren / Never prosper, boy or man.’ The wren’s irresistible vitality – flight as sudden as a Bonfire rocket, constant busyness, not to mention their clamorous song – gives the strong impression of a forceful nature. Perhaps this explains the myth that crowns the wren king of the birds when he wins a contest to see who can fly the highest by perching un-noticed on the back of the prideful eagle.

Like the robin, the wren is closely linked with winter and Christmas. The main association seems to have arisen in the 17th Century when there developed, despite ancient custom, a ‘tradition’ of killing a wren and parading it around the streets, leaving a feather for protection at each house. This ritual was performed in many places throughout Britain on St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) or Twelfth Night and persists even now in scattered locations, though, thankfully, a small box or bush now represents the wren. Apparently the wren was blamed for betraying St Stephen who was then captured and martyred, yet the power attributed to a wren’s feather seems to echo the earlier taboos.

So let’s finish with a few astonishing facts for your Christmas quiz. The wren is just about Britain’s smallest bird (only goldcrest and firecrest are smaller) and weighs in at around the same as two twenty pence pieces (10g). Before winning his mate the male is expected to build several nests (on average he will have made six), not bothering to avoid humans he might build inside garden sheds and garages in constant use. The nests are then visited by the female - I can’t help imagining her scornful eye as she inspects - before she chooses the best one. His song is truly prodigious and in ideal conditions can be heard half a mile away. In cold spells wrens roost together for warmth, the most remarkable gathering, according to that wonderful book, Birds Britannica, is 60 wrens in one bird box! To give our local wrens a treat you can turn your compost heap and top with a sprinkle of finely grated cheese. Christmas cheer to all!