Family : Troglodytidae
Text © Dr. Gianfranco Colombo
English translation by Mario Beltramini
December 26th is quite a bad day for the wren!
In the British islands, particularly in Ireland, on St. Stephen’s Day it was an old tradition that all juveniles of the village, the face covered with soot, went roaming the countryside beating hedges and bushes with sticks, in pursuit of this tiny bird for killing it and bury later on with a picturesque function.
Once caught, it was then hung on a sprig of holly and carried in procession through the village and shown to all the inhabitants.
It seems then strange that a local tradition so old and confined in places so far from the noble centres of Greek-Roman culture, eventually ends to look exactly like others, arisen thousands of kilometres far away.
If this is classified as an old megalithic Celtic tradition, the same is the very old Greek rite of the Kelidonismos of Rhodes island, maybe coeval, two traditions so distant but with such a strict relation to result practically similar.
Both then concern small and unarmed birds but highly representative of the changing of the seasons and metaphorically, of the annual regeneration of the earth.
If in the Kelidonismos it was matter of Swallows ( Hirundo rustica ) in the La An Droilin they talked of wrens.
If in the first the boys went from house to house to collect presents in favour of the swallows, in the second the same passed to beg small offerings for celebrating the funeral of the poor wren.
It is then quite easy to connect both with the modern Halloween of the “trick of treat?”.
Small like a wren, you are really a wren! How many times this term has been used to indicate a helpless child or a small animal in need of affection. Who knows how many people have used this term without having ever seen alive this small bird? Actually, it is probably easier to hear its vibrating song rather than observing it in its environment.
The wren ( Troglodytes troglodytes – Linnaeus, 1758) belongs to the order of the Passeriformes and to the family of the Troglodytidae, vast group that includes all over the world, about twenty genera and about 80 species.
Keeping in mind that it is the second smallest bird of Europe, the first prize being won by a narrow margin by the Goldcrest ( Regulus regulus ), if we add the environments it frequents and the colour of its livery we have all the conditions for granting the privilege of easily going unnoticed.
Already its scientific name Troglodytes that gets origin from the old Greek “troglo” = cave and “dutes” = inhabitant, term easy to translate in the modern languages in caveman or troglodyte, gives the idea of how much reserved and hidden is its life. In fact, it does not spend its day in caves but the dark corners, the ravines and the hollows of the ground are its choice locations.
Unfortunately, this hypogeal habit it has added to superstitions that never have left in peace the human soul, have rendered the life hard to this small bird.
The human being has always had a strict relationship with the world of the birds seen that also they dance, sing, build up dwellings and have two legs like man and has always imitated them. However, in the same time it has had towards these same animals an ancestral fear that has led him to embrace blindly superstitions and ill-fated interpretations where the same loved little bird was then sacrificed for other purposes.
To immolate a chicken in the Voodoo traditions, to read the intestines by Etruscan haruspices, to hang the heart of an owl to fight blindness, no wonder therefore if our poor small wren together with the harmless Robin ( Erithacus rubecula ) was often victim of the miners that saw the presence of these birds in the mines as harbinger of impending tragedies.
Finally, always in the old traditions, still since the time of Aesop and Plutarch, the wren or Jenny Wren (female name but used for both sexes) as often is called, is considered as the king of all birds, proving that what it lacks in size it has instead in intelligence.
It is said that in a competition over who could fly higher, the wren flew towards the sky first with a rapid sprint but was soon caught by the eagle on whose back it clung stealthily hiding among the feathers. When they were vey high, slipped with a last sprint from the hideout and surpassed her on the finish line.
In Italy the wren has an unbelievable number of regional nicknames such as bucafratte, forasiepe, foramacchie, trentapesi, picialì, uccellino del freddo, whilst in various nations the vulgar name refers to its regal position. In Germany is called Zaunkönig = king of the hedges or Schneekönig = king of the snow, in Holland Winterkoning = king of winter, in Japan king of the winds whilst in Spain is Chochin, in France Troglodyte mignon, in Italy Scricciolo and in England Wren.
Inter alia, we have to remind that in ancient times in Latin this small bird was called “regulus” = small king. The origin of the Anglo-Saxon name wren comes from a corruption of the old Celtic term wrenne or wraenna. In Spanish this particular name comes after the similarity with the Woodcock ( Scolopax rusticola ), named in spanish "chocha perdiz" but in smaller size, so "chochin", even if this word is commonly used in dialect as a salacious sexual thought.
The wren is present all over Europe, in North Africa and in Asia in the cool temperate belt up to Japan.
It is also present in North America with two subspecies, one eastern Troglodytes hiemalis and one western Troglodytes pacificus, by some considered as independent species.
As is typical for those birds having a very vast range, also for the wren have been determined a considerable number of subspecies. About forty have been classified mainly linked to isolated insular territories or to particularly remote areas of the planet.
Only in Europe and to prove the variety found, we have the Troglodytes troglodytes islandicus typical to Iceland, the Troglodytes troglodytes borealis of the Faroe Islands, the Troglodytes troglodytes zetlandicus of the Shetland Islands, the Troglodytes troglodytes fridariensis always of Shetland but confined in Fair Island, the Troglodytes troglodytes hirtensis endemic to the lost island of St. Kilda in the Hebrides, the Troglodytes troglodytes hebridensis of the Outer Hebrides, the Troglodytes troglodytes indigenus of Great Britain and Ireland, and finally the Troglodytes troglodytes troglodytes of continental Europe.
The wren is sedentary in its temperate ranges whilst is partially errant in the coldest territories.
The livery of the wren is totally dark brown, with a slight and thick blackish spotting that on the tail gets the look of a fine strikethroughs. The chest is slightly paler, with a compact cream colouration and almost completely devoid of striations but on the sides.
On the head it shows a marked whitish superciliary line that stops close to the nape.
The well-pointed bill, fairly long for its size, is flesh yellow, as well as the long and robust little legs.
Characteristic of this bird is the position it assumes during its incessant nervous and agitated movements. As they say, it doesn’t stand still even for a moment!
Always well standing on the legs, as if it wanted to appear taller than what it is, keeps always the tail vertically raised, emphasizing, with the usual frantic movement of the body, the jitters that pervade it.
Considered then the habit to stay almost always on the ground and the atavistic mania of entering and getting out from any opening, quick as a rat, it is not difficult to mistake it with a baby mouse.
Then ended for a moment the frantic and genetic frenzy, here it jumps on support even if just a few centimetres from the ground high, always with the tail so much stretched upward to touch the nape, emitting its shrilling song so loud and unlikely for a being “small like a wren”. An unimaginable, pleasant, melodious and unexpected trill.
And yet this small bird weighs less than 10 g, is totally long less than 10 cm and has a wingspan of about 12 cm.
The sound box, should it have it, is by sure the most developed organ!
During the period of nidification, the wren lives in humid sites, shady, with abundance of underwood, of rocky outcrops covered by lichens, by ferns, of trees with wild ivies clung to the trunk, place usually crossed by small gurgling water streams.
In this environment it can let out its innate passion of exploring every small hollow looking for insects and also of looking for the place where to install the nest.
The wren male builds several nests in every season, leaving them incomplete and at the disposal of the female who, one chosen, furnishes it inside con care and delicacy. For this reason it is often polygamous and creates a harem of some females that occupy one of these nests at the time.
The nest is usually placed in holes on rocks, or tree trunks, in low and very thick bushes close to walls or trees or also in the roots of a capsized trunk.
Once chosen the slit or the hole, it practically fills it up with moss, grass and lichens, forming an egg-shaped nest with the entry hole on the top, very similar to that of the Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus).
It is never located in a high position but rather at level of the ground if not even directly on the same.
It lays 5 to 8, at times up to 10, white cream eggs, finely dotted reddish and that are brooded by the female for about two weeks. In the southern ranges it may nidify a second time.
The chicks come to life bare and blind and only after some days they cover with a fine down that slowly transforms in a juvenile plumage, however very similar to the adults’ one.
The nestlings remain in the nest for some time even if already able to fly off and come back also later on to the nest for weeks to spend there the night.
This habit is widely practiced during the winter when the night temperature falls below zero. The wren succeeds in spending the winter also in very cold and humid sites, spending the days along the banks of the small water streams crossing the woods, entering the cavities looking for the few insects available and spending the night grouping beyond belief in these small nests to maintain the body temperature sufficiently high for overcoming the rigour of the winter nights.
This tiny small bird is subject also to short vertical migrations whereby during the winter willingly goes down in the valley or in the nearby plains to spend the bad season in our gardens, finding food and shelter.
The wren is insectivorous but in winter integrates the feeding with some seed or berry.
Now, two small anedoctes.
In Great Britain the wren enjoys a reputation similar to that of the Robin ( Erithacus rubecula ) and has been represented in an old coin valid a few decades ago, the farthing, a quarter of penny.
In Germany, to indicate that a person is full of joy, they recite a proverb that refers directly to this small bird and to its irresistible joy and excitement: “to enjoy like a king of the snows” (the wren). Jemand freut sich wie ein Schneekönig. That is comparable to Italian "felice come un fringuello", joyful like a chaffinch, rightly referred to the Chaffinch ( Fringilla coelebs ) or to english “as happy as a clam” or to french “heureux comme une huȋtre“, as happy as an oyster or finally to Spanish “feliz como un perro con dos colas”, as happy as a dog with two tails. Significant to observe as human being, to exalt the happiness of which often is lacking, mention so frequently that of animals.
Motacilla troglodytes - Linnaeus, 1758.
The photographic file of Giuseppe Mazza