The King of Birds

The Shetland Wren. Troglodytes Troglodytes Zetlandicus. © Erik Brown 2018


THE WREN is a little bird full of surprises. Ask your friends what the commonest bird in Britain is, and they're likely to say 'starling' or 'blackbird', perhaps. But the truth is that the wren is the the most common with an estimated 8.5 million breeding pairs, which is odd because - unless you're actually looking for them - you hardly ever see them.

Why? Well, there's a clue in the Latin name, Troglodytes Troglodytes (from 'trogle' - a hole; and 'dyein' - to creep)A troglodyte is a cave dweller and the wren is noted for its habit of foraging in cavities and under bushes hunting for spiders, flies, beetles, ants and caterpillars. So, wrens skulk around in the undergrowth where you can't see them, unless they're flitting between bushes or are singing males, in which case you may spot one on a fence post or at the top of a hedge making a terrific noise and visibly vibrating with the effort. The cocked up tail is a dead giveaway.

The German name for a wren is Zaunkönig, which means 'king of the fence or hedge'. In Dutch it is winterkoninkje - little winter king. The designation 'king' is probably because the wren is the hero of a fable so ancient that Aristotle knew it, about the election of the King of Birds.

Long ago, it was decided in the avian court that the  king's crown would go to the bird that could fly highest. The eagle was well on its way to victory and exhausted, when the little wren that had hidden in its plumage popped out and - daisy fresh - soared way above the eagle's head: a triumph of cunning over brute force.

One of the reasons, the wren population in the UK is so huge is that they're happy to live pretty much anywhere - mixed deciduous forests, moors, gardens, farmland and in the winter even reed beds, it's all the same to the trogs. (Yes, the band that originally recorded Love is All Around and Wild Thing, The Troggs, were originally named The Troglodytes. They were, for a while, King of the Bands in the swinging sixties.)

It's pretty tough being a male wren though. The female insists that the male builds up to half a dozen, even eight, nests before she chooses one in which to lay her eggs. And then male wrens have to defend their territories against other males all year round so hardly a month passes in which you can't hear the wren's body-shaking song - per unit weight, it's ten times louder than a crowing cockerel. Not bad for a tiny bird that weighs about as much as a pound coin: in Britain, only the goldcrest and firecrest are smaller.

Wrens have been singing and building nests for a long time too. They were recorded by the Anglo-Saxons and there is fossil evidence that they were around during the last ice age, about 18,000 years ago. Since they only live for two years on average, there must have been an awful lot of them since then.

You may have heard this bird called 'Jenny Wren', a soubriquet that goes back to medieval times. She takes a starring role in an old nursery rhyme:

Little Jenny Wren fell sick,

Upon a time;

In came Robin Redbreast

And brought her cake and wine.

Jenny was an independent lady, though, and Robin's amorous efforts were in vain. Once Jenny had recovered, she got rid of him.

Jenny she got well,

And stood upon her feet,

And told Robin plainly

She loved him not a bit.

We Brits used to have a habit of giving birds first names - hence Martin, Robin, Tom Tit, Jack Snipe, Jackdaw and Magpie (where Mag is short for Margaret). Song thrushes were once called Mavis, although nobody seems to know why. Jay, incidentally, is said to be an Anglicised form of the Roman name Gaius - proof, were it needed, that we Brits have been giving birds first names for a very long time indeed.

And finally, a country name for a wren was 'Stumpy Toddy'. Bet that raised a smile.

You can hear a wren singing on the RSPB website: The Wren.

• The Shetland wren in the picture is a sub-species of the Eurasian wren. I grabbed this shot on a recent tour of the Northern Isles.