Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Bird King

Troglodytes troglodytes, the winter wren.

I saw this little wren in Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn, New York. He was on the ground, hopping in and out of sight under a row of shrubs. He perched momentarily on a low branch and then dove into the underbrush.

Don't feel bad if you have never seen a winter wren. Even though they are common, they are tiny. They weigh less than half an ounce and are only about four inches long. We often only notice them as they scurry away under bushes. It is easy to mistake them for mice.

The winter wren usually holds its short tail cocked upward. The bird is warm brown with dark narrow bars on wings, tail, and back. It has a light stripe above the eye. Its chin and throat are grayish brown. Its short round wings allow it to take off quickly and to maneuver around in the close environment of brush and bush.

In North America, winter wrens breed in northern Canada and then move south into most of the United States to spend the winter. They live in habitats from remote islands to crowded cities, but they prefer conifer forests. The winter wren is the only wren that is also found outside of North America, in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Although winter wrens eat insects, they are able to find enough food in cold weather by foraging on bark and fallen logs. They are usually not social during the day, but may spend nights huddling in groups in snug cavities; it is warmer that way.

The winter wren is famous for singing. Only the males sing, but unlike many birds that sing only during breeding season, winter wren males sing year round. The little wren puffs his chest, cocks his tail, tilts his head back, and sings a long stream of musical trills. Follow this link to watch a wren singing on YouTube:

Now about the title. According to folklore via Aesop's Fables and Grimm's Fairytales, the winter wren is the very unlikely King of the Birds. Apparently it was decided long ago one day when the birds were talking about who should be king. They agreed to decide by a flying contest and they all took off skyward. Over time they dropped back one by one, first the little birds, then the heavy birds, until eventually only the eagle was left.

But no! A little winter wren (called simply the wren in Europe where it is the only one) was hidden in the eagle's feathers. The wren won on a technicality -- being on the eagle's back and therefore higher, or in another version, by jumping off and flying upward after the eagle finally got tired. The wren reached heaven and proclaimed his victory with song. (The moral is that cleverness is superior to strength.)

The birds were upset and demanded a redo. They decided to see who could go deepest underground. They all started digging and tired themselves since most were not really made for the work. The winter wren popped into a mouse hole and won again. He sang his victory song again. The birds were really mad, but tired. They posted an owl to watch the mouse hole and went away to rest. The owl fell asleep. The wren got away, but to this day feels uneasy and stays hidden in the bushes. The owl, humiliated by failure, no longer goes out in the daylight and gets revenge by eating mice...

In England, the Queen of the Fairies was thought to shapeshift into a wren called Jenny. Lots of nursery rhymes feature wrens. Here is a sampling.

This one, which captures the wren's typical resting habit, is best read aloud: 
          Little Jenny Wren
                                                       A little Jenny wren, 
                                                       was sitting by the shed.
                                                       She wagged her tail,
                                                       and nodded with her head.
                                                       She wagged her tail,
                                                       and nodded with her head. 
                                                       As little Jenny wren,
                                                       was sitting by the shed. 

This one refers to the winter wren's fecundity. A pair of winter wrens can raise two 1-9 egg  clutches in a year. 

The Dove and the Wren

The Dove says coo, coo, what shall I do?
I can scarce maintain two.
Pooh, pooh! Says the Wren, I've got ten,
And keep them all like gentlemen. 

And here is one that refers to the winter wren's drab plumage. 

When Jenny Wren Was Young

'Twas once upon a time, when Jenny Wren was young, 
So daintily she dance and so prettily she sung,
Robin Redbreast lost his heart, for he was a gallant bird, 
So he doffed his hat to Jenny Wren, requesting to be heard. 

"Oh, dearest Jenny Wren, if you will but be mine, 
You shall feed on cherry pie and drink new currant wine, 
I'll dress you like a goldfinch or any peacock gay, 
So, dearest Jen, if you'll be mine, let us appoint the day."

Jenny blushed behind her fan and thus declared her mind: 
"Since dearest Bob I love you well, I'll take your offer kind. 
Cherry pie is very nice and so is currant wine, 
But I must wear my plain brown gown
And never go too fine."


  1. My day has been improved by the idea of winter wrens spending "nights huddling in groups in snug cavities" - thank you! I shall keep my eyes out for these little birds.

  2. Lol! Me too! I like knowing how and where birds sleep. There is an excellent book called "Birds Asleep" by Alexander Skutch that gives details for many species.