The se­cret life of the wren

The wren thrives in many dif­fer­ent habi­tats but its life­style is so un­ob­tru­sive that peo­ple of­ten claim they’ve never seen Bri­tain’s most com­mon bird.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents -

Dwelling in nooks and cran­nies from high­lands to coastal cliffs, dis­cover why the wren re­mains Bri­tain’s most com­mon – yet least ob­served – bird

W hen I men­tioned that I was writ­ing a book on the wren, many peo­ple (apart from nat­u­ral­ists) told me they had never seen one. While in some ways this is odd – af­ter all, there are es­ti­mated to be at least eight mil­lion breed­ing pairs of wrens in Bri­tain – in other ways it is quite un­der­stand­able. The wren lives its life in a very dif­fer­ent way from most other birds – whizzing from place to place on those short, stubby wings, or hid­ing away in the un­der­growth, search­ing for tiny in­sects on which to feed it­self.

Most gar­den birds, in­clud­ing other favourites such as the robin, black­bird and blue tit, are es­sen­tially wood­land species, for which gar­dens pro­vide an ideal replica habi­tat, with places to feed, roost and nest. Up to a point, the same is true of the wren, and in­deed wrens do breed in woods and forests. Yet else­where in Bri­tain, un­like these other ar­bo­real species, wrens can be found on heaths and moors, along coastal cliffs and head­lands, and on re­mote, off­shore is­lands. I have seen wrens in vir­tu­ally ev­ery land habi­tat, apart from the high tops of moun­tains.

Cre­vice crea­ture

The rea­son for this catholic choice of dwelling places is that the wren lives its life on a very dif­fer­ent scale to us, and in­deed to most other song­birds. As Max Ni­chol­son, the gi­ant of 20th-cen­tury or­nithol­ogy, noted: “The wren can­not be ad­e­quately de­scribed as a bird of wood­lands, gar­dens, fields,

moors, marshes, cliffs or waste­lands – al­though it is all of these – but must be looked at rather as a bird of crevices and cran­nies, of wood­piles and fallen trees, of hedge bot­toms and banks, walls and boul­ders, wher­ever these may oc­cur.” In other words, the wren can live al­most any­where – hence its po­si­tion as Bri­tain’s most com­mon and wide­spread bird. It also ex­plains their rather puz­zling sci­en­tific name, Troglodyte­s troglodyte­s, mean­ing cave dweller – which prob­a­bly refers to this diminu­tive bird’s habit of ex­plor­ing nooks and cran­nies in search of food. Wrens feed on tiny in­ver­te­brates, in­clud­ing spi­ders, flies, bee­tles and ants, which they grab with that long, pointed bill. Be­cause these crea­tures are avail­able all year round – un­like, for ex­am­ple, some fly­ing in­sects – wrens have lit­tle or no need to mi­grate. This is also where the wren’s small size comes into play. Few other species can sur­vive on such tiny morsels of food, and few oth­ers have the abil­ity to find their prey so ef­fec­tively – search­ing con­stantly in hid­den places, and mov­ing from one place to the next in a blur of en­ergy.

“A wren’s world… is more com­pa­ra­ble in some ways to a mouse’s than to our own,” Ni­chol­son as­serted, and they do be­have much more like a small mam­mal than a bird. That may be one rea­son why most peo­ple so rarely see them.

The other thing peo­ple tell me about the wren, of­ten with great con­fi­dence, is that it is Bri­tain’s small­est bird. How­ever, the wren com­fort­ably out­weighs the true holder of that ti­tle, as I dis­cov­ered when nat­u­ral­ist and bird ringer Ed Dre­witt si­mul­ta­ne­ously trapped a wren and a gold­crest in my gar­den. To our sur­prise, the wren was fully twice as heavy as the gold­crest, tip­ping the scales at 10g com­pared to the gold­crest’s 5g. But at the same weight as a new £1 coin, the wren is still very small, which makes it vul­ner­a­ble to harsh win­ter weather, when food can be hard to find.

Des­per­ate times call for des­per­ate mea­sures, which in the wren’s case means for­sak­ing its usual soli­tary ex­is­tence each evening, and ‘bud­dy­ing up’ with its ri­vals to keep warm. Wren roosts are rarely seen, as they are usu­ally be­hind dense veg­e­ta­tion, such as ivy. But from time to time, wrens take ad­van­tage of the nest­boxes we pro­vide for our gar­den birds. They can do so in in­cred­i­ble num­bers – dur­ing the win­ter of 1969, one ob­server in Nor­folk counted more than 60 wrens en­ter­ing a sin­gle nest­box. But for such a nor­mally soli­tary and pug­na­cious bird, this forced co­hab­i­ta­tion does not come eas­ily.

Wildlife cam­era­man Mark Payne-Gill re­calls film­ing wrens roost­ing in a dis­used swal­low’s nest in Es­sex, on a chilly win­ter’s af­ter­noon. Hav­ing filmed sev­eral wrens en­ter­ing the nest and set­tling down for the night, Mark was just about to pack away his cam­era when he heard a se­ries of loud Soli­tary sur­vivor

Dur­ing the win­ter of 1969, one ob­server in Nor­folk counted more than 60 wrens en­ter­ing a sin­gle nest­box.

Stephen Moss

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