The King of Birds

I wasn’t sure how so small a bird as the wren had come to be crowned as their king. According to the ever-reliable Mr Google, it won this mythological right in a who-can-fly-highest competition, cunningly snatching a ride to glory on the head of an eagle. Which sounds plausible enough – ah, and the story is confirmed by the even more reliable Mr BTO, so it must have happened! Granted the power I’d have crowned the even tinier goldcrest or firecrest instead – they actually do wear crowns of gold, after all – but then all three diminutive birds share a name across at least one or two languages and points in history. They’re all kuningilin or kinglets, little kings.

The wren’s rule over Britain may simply be by weight of numbers. Latest estimates have them holding station as the nation’s most numerous bird, some 8.4 million pairs. Not that most folk would have guessed it, since wrens make themselves far less obvious than many birds. They are the masters of nooks and crannies, cracks and crevices, tiny spider hunters that rule the dark corners of the garden. That’s how wrens became Troglodytes, the cave-dweller. Or in German, zaunkonig: literally (and appropriately to my mind) the ‘King of the fence’, and probably king of the woodpile and the compost heap too. And of the ditch, in which dank forgotten habitat I watched one busily feeding last week. Bustling back and forth, back and forth, the size of a mouse but quite close to the top of the food chain in that small, neglected ecosystem, the wren carries itself with the bearing of a monarch even if it lacks the stature. Furthermore they sing in a princely, free-flowing voice at a volume that rivals birds ten times the size or more.

Once, I held a wren in the palm of my hand. Its eyes were tightly shut, and it didn’t move apart from vibrating itself vigorously, seemingly as if to will the sun’s warmth to infiltrate its veins and give lift to its wings. Or perhaps it was shivering in fear, fervently hoping that the enormous hairy man-ape thing on which it sat was not imminently planning to eat it. Either way it was there in the very midst of its fragility that the wren’s true power was revealed. As I concentrated on not extinguishing the delicate flame with whose continuity I had been entrusted, my focus, my universe shrank to the width of one hand, five fingers; the wren its beating heart, its sun. King of birds, potentate of my perspective.

Yesterday evening a wren was uncharacteristically one of the few birds I saw, whilst on a mission to sample the frigid post-snow air in the local park. It started out as a typical wren sighting, the tiny outline of a bird darting on a rail-straight path into deep cover. But this individual flitted out again and alighted in plain view silhouetted against the orange-grey suburban dusk. Clinging to the outer leaves of an oak’s cloak of ivy it climbed higher and higher until my head was tipped back at a right angle just to keep it in view. How often does one see a wren openly perched so far above head height? The skulking sovereign was daring at last to reach the heights by his own faculty, winning his kingdom anew. No cheating, no hitch-hiking required.

wren

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5 thoughts on “The King of Birds

  1. I love this entry. You know, I think you would make an excellent copy writer/commentator for the Discovery Channel, especially for bird shows, but additionally for any wildlife programs. I wonder who you could contact for that?

  2. There’s nothing like holding a wren in your hand to make you realize how impressive the tiny birds are – so much energy and character and aggression in that fragile package. I loved working with wrens.
    What happened to the bird you held – did he recover?

    • Happily he did, and was singing again quite soon afterwards. He was initially exhuasted after being part of a ringing demonstration on a fairly cold morning, but other than that was in good health. Which wren species’ did you work with? It being an American family we only have the one (I think Troglodytes troglodytes has now been split from your winter wren?), but I love the diversity of wrens across the pond!

      • Ah yeah, it’s easy for the little guys to get cold that way. I’m glad he recovered!
        I worked on House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) when I was in undergrad on the east coast. They don’t look all that exciting – I remember one paper even described them as “nondescript” – but they were awesome. Now that I’m on the west coast I see Bewick’s Wrens all the time; I love their eyebrow. And a colleague of mine from the House Wren work is now down in Argentina working on Sedge Wrens, which are really beautiful. I’d love an excuse to work on wrens again.

  3. Pingback: 10,000 Birds | I and the Bird: What is a Wren?

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