Legend tells of a great debate that arose among the birds over who should lead them. To settle the matter, they held a contest: whoever could fly the highest would become their king. From the many contenders, the powerful eagle, as expected, soon soared above the others. But as the eagle tired and began to descend, the tiny wren emerged from the eagle’s feathers where it had been hiding, and flew above the eagle. Since that time, the wren has been known as the king of all birds.
Small and furtive, but inquisitive and bold, with loud voices that belie their size, wrens have long delighted the people with whom they frequently share living space. Seemingly fearless, wrens will challenge much larger birds and other animals. Most birders can probably recall receiving a tongue-lashing after intruding too close to a wren’s nest or young – sometimes from the entire family! Their imperious nature certainly provided fodder for the legend, but it has not always benefited them.
In Ireland, Wales, and other countries with a Celtic history, a curious custom called “The Hunting of the Wren” is still performed about the time of the winter solstice. In these parts of the world, there is only one wren species, called simply the Wren (or “Wran” in Ireland, Troglodytes troglodytes). Until recently, the European Wren was considered the same species as the Winter and Pacific Wrens (now split off as T. hiemalis and T. pacificus), among the smallest wrens of North America. All three are essentially feathered punctuation marks, by no means big enough to qualify as game birds, though like others in the family all have outsized personalities.
The origins of the custom are murky. It may have begun with a winter solstice ceremony, in which a wren, representing the ending year, would be killed and buried to signify the “dying” of the sun on the year’s shortest day. As with other pagan customs, however, there is also an alternative Christian explanation: a legend that a wren betrayed Saint Stephen to his enemies, who then stoned him to death. For that reason, the Hunting of the Wren now typically takes place on Saint Stephen’s Day, Dec. 26th.
In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the custom may have had greater importance as a means of expressing resentment toward overbearing royalty. Speaking out against the reigning monarch was, of course, a hazardous thing to do, usually leading to the demise of the speaker. Wrens, being “royalty” in myth, may have had the misfortune of standing in for the despised monarch. Traditionally, boys would comb the hedgerows to capture (and often kill) a wren, put it in a box, then carry it door to door, requesting donations to “see the King in a box.” Today, a symbolic but empty box is the centerpiece of the festivities.
So if, while participating in the Christmas Bird Count, you encounter his or her majesty, particularly a Winter Wren, please pay your respects. As Shakespeare tells us, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
– Bill Reiner