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Riddles of the Wren

Outdoor Living

Country sights and sounds
John Shelley

We walked along the winter hedgerow in silence, looking in vain for signs of an early spring. The buds on beech and hornbeam are fully dormant. Holly is green yet tired-looking, most of its berries having been stripped for wreaths.
We had seen them here last week, a callow youth and an older man armed with a machete type blade, hacking away at every berried branch within reach. A small ginger-brown bird searched around the base of the trunk for spiders. Such life in so small a creature!
“If the wren boys come around this year I’ll run them.” James was annoyed. “Look at the poor thing, barely a stump, and the whole world against him.”
“I know,” I agreed. “He was always Tiddy to us, on account of his small size. But hasn’t he a fine voice for such a small bird.”
The wren hopped to a higher branch and trilled loudly, as if to show us what he could really do; almost a spring song, I thought, not just a few short notes that might serve to hold a territory, but a full, long serenade of shrill notes that ended with a distinctly optimistic and uplifting flourish.
“We used to call him Sally,” said James, “I think on account of his creeping among the willows. He couldn’t do anything much but creep – even when he flies it’s only from here to there and then back to his ways in the underwood.
“And I’ve heard him called Our Lady’s Hen. They say the wren was present at the birth of Our Lord and gathered moss to make a covering and lined it with feathers to keep the child warm. Do they have wrens in Palestine? You ought to know.”
“I’ve heard they do,” I said. “Not only that, but the male wren is a prolific builder, putting together one nest after the other so he has somewhere to sleep the whole year through, every one of them woven from soft grasses and moss and shaped like a small coconut with a hole just below the apex. I’ve heard of them being used as warm and comfortable slippers for small children, though I doubt they’d take much wear.”
That was enough for James. “Well there you are then. Why would anyone want to harm the wren, especially at this time of year. Not that Christmas has anything to do with Christ. When was he born?”
“I don’t know – sometime in the autumn.”
“And do wrens build nests through the autumn?”
“They do.”
James gave the matter some thought before giving his conclusion. “It makes sense alright. If the wren boys come around here I’ll definitely run them.”
I should have left it at that, but couldn’t stop myself adding a historical flavour to our discussion. “Just as some have nice stories about our friend Sally here, others tell a different tale.”
“Go on,” said James. “Tell me more.”
“One account takes us back to the Battle of the Boyne. The troops of King William of Orange were asleep after their meal, for which their drums had served as tables. Catholic King James had his army poised to attack. They would have wiped out their enemies but for a flock of wrens that descended to feast upon the leftover food. The sound of their beaks against the drum skins awoke the slumbering soldiers and the slaughter was averted. More than that, having lost the element of surprise, King James’ troops were routed and William won the day. And so we have the tradition of persecuting the wren down to this day, as if it were responsible for the very history of this country. Elsewhere they find it a lucky bird.”
“Do you suppose their might be truth in it?” James wanted to know.
“No,” I told him. “The Battle of the Boyne took place on the first day of July. The wren tribe would still be raising their families. More than likely it was sparrows.”
“They used to hunt the wren thus,” James told me, “with a big stick to beat the bushes and a small one to throw at the poor bird, like a boomerang, except that it wouldn’t come back. You wouldn’t want to throw too hard for you’d have to go and fetch it.” He gave a carefully aimed swing with an empty hand.
“I doubt the wren would come back either, supposing he escaped with his life. I don’t think the wren boys kill them anymore. They just pretend.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said James. “If they come ’round I’ll run them. Look here! New leaves on the woodbine!”