In Midlothian singer Karine Polwart’s album ‘Traces’ she performs one of her finest songs ,‘King of Birds’, telling the story of how the wren won the ‘King of Birds’ contest to fly the highest of any bird by hiding in the feathers of the eagle then rising even higher when the eagle tired.
This story goes back to Aesop’s fables from ancient Greece and since that time the Wren has featured strongly in folklore in many cultures and was worshipped as a sacred bird by the Druids.
It is one of our smallest but most familiar native birds, and with a powerful song louder than many larger songbirds. Its scientific name ‘Troglodytes troglodytes’ refers to its constant search for insect food in dark places.
Finding a wren’s nest in my woodland, tucked against the trunk of a spruce tree, I was impressed by the beautiful domed construction carefully woven from dead fern fronds and moss and superbly camouflaged.
The male wren must be one of the most devoted of birds, as he constructs up to six or seven different nests and invites his hen to choose the one in which she wishes to lay her six to eight eggs and rear her young, and then in only this one does she treat herself to a soft lining of wool or feathers. The other ‘cock nests’ are used by the male as roosting places.
In Britain the wren is found all over the country, from sea level high into the mountains and even in the Scottish Islands, where isolation has allowed three subspecies to evolve over the centuries - the Shetland Wren, the Fair Isle Wren, and the most remarkable, the St Kilda Wren, first recorded in 1697 and still surviving. It inhabits the huge cliffs, sea-shore boulders and the stone ‘cleits’ built by the former inhabitants of Hirta to store their winter food supplies - dried gannets and other seabirds. These subspecies show minor differences in plumage colour and their eggs from their mainland cousins.
George Muirhead in 1889 in The Birds of Berwickshire, wrote that the local name here in the Borders is the ‘Kitty Wren’ and he described how the wren population could crash dramatically during very hard winters.
At Spottiswoode in very hard spells in winter the wrens gather at dusk to roost in old House Martin nests under our eaves, and I once counted 38 wrens coming out of a single nest.
By the end of the winter the nests have become so badly damaged by the wrens that the poor House Martins have to re-build from scratch each spring. In winter the bold wrens also come into our outhouses and into an upstairs bedroom if the window is left open only an inch or two, and pick off the hibernating Tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies leaving only the colourful wings strewn on the floor.