THE WREN AND THE WATER OUSEL
STILPAKAD AND HOH-TE-KOGDS
Along the rivers and little creeks lives a small bird that jumps up and down all the time. He lives on bugs and little worms in the water. He can dive and swim and seldom goes away from along the water. When he sees other birds on the land and in the trees along the streams he talks very much.
One time he made a long talk to Stilpakad, the wren, saying: "You land birds don't know very much, you are afraid of the water. I am both wise and strong; suppose you wrestle with me." Wren said: "You don't know as much as you think. There are many things you don't know much about. Maybe if you come on land and wrestle with me I shall win. But I am in a hurry."
Many days the Water Ousel talked to the Wren and wanted to wrestle. At last Wren said: "Now soon I will wrestle you." He was much smaller than Ousel, so he figured out a plan while sitting by the campfire. First he threw away the brands then leveled out the ashes so it looked cold, but there were hot coals underneath.
Then he said: "If you want to now, you big-talking bird, come up here on this level ground, and I will wrestle you." The Ousel came up jumping up and down all the time. Wren got him between himself and the ashes. All at once he jumped straight at Ousel who fell backward into the ashes, and was overcome by the fire.
Wren jumped up and down on him until he was still. Then he fluttered his wings and blew the ashes over him so he could not be seen. Wren said: "One bird thought he knew everything, but he didn't." Next day he saw Water Ousel in the creek but he was a very quiet bird.
The wren is an interesting bird in the Celtic tradition. Although it is a tiny bird, only 9cm in size, it has an astoundingly powerful warbling song.
Of all the birds revered by the Celts the wren was considered the most sacred.
In Ireland it was called the Drui-en, or Druid bird; in Welsh the word Dryw signifies both a druid and a wren. Why is it that the Druid is pictured as an apparently nondescript little bird and not as an obviously powerful bird like the eagle? An answer can be found in a story from the western highlands of Scotland.
"In a great assembly of all the birds of the air, it was decided that the sovereignty of the feathered tribe should be given to the bird who could fly the highest. The favourite was naturally the eagle, who immediately began his flight toward the sun - fully confident in his ability to win the title of King of the Birds. When he found himself soaring high above all his competitors, he proclaimed in a mighty voice his monarchy over all creatures who had wings. But suddenly, from out of his wings popped the wren, who had hidden himself under the eagle's feathers. He flew a few inches higher and chirped out loudly, 'Birds, look up and behold your king!'"
This story shows the wren as a cunning bird, prepared to build on the achievements of others and to mock their pride by outwitting them at the final moment. The Druid was known as the 'cunning man' - the man who can become invisible like the wren, who can travel on the back of the noble eagle to reach his destination, saving himself energy in the process. Being small he is unobtrusive and being small he can enter worlds that bigger people cannot. Being proud makes one unwieldy; being small and humble enables one to slip through the eye of a needle or down the root of a tree.
The Breton Celts go even further in according the wren a key role in their bird-lore: they say that it was the wren who brought fire from heaven, but that as she flew back down to earth her wings began to burn and she had to pass her gift to the robin, whose plumage also burst into flames. The lark then came to the rescue, finally bringing the gift of fire to the world.
The Druid's house is the wren's nest - a place of comfort and safety, for another important symbol in Druidry is the egg. The Druid's Egg, made famous by Pliny's remarks, articulates the idea that in order to grow and change there is required periods of incubation - withdrawing from the world to allow the opportunity to reform in the womb of time. The wren's nest was said to be protected by lightning. Whoever tried to steal wren's eggs or baby wrens would find their house struck by lightning and their hands would shrivel up.
The wren symbolised wisdom and divinity. It is difficult to actually see a wren. At New Year the apprentice Druid would go out by himself into the countryside in search of hidden wisdom. If he found a wren he would take that as a sign that he would be blessed with inner knowledge in the coming year. Finding a creature small and elusive to the point of invisibility was a metaphor for finding the elusive divinity within all life.
Wrens are in the bird family known as "Troglodytes", which is Latin for "Creeper into holes" and "cave dweller", an apt name for a bird that nests in almost any small cavity. Besides bird houses and old woodpecker holes, these birds have been known to nest in spools of string, fishing creel hung in sheds, boots and shoes, pockets of clothing, hats, and flower pots, just to name a few! A cheerful song in threes, a pert tail that is often held straight up, and a slightly downward curving beak make the wren unmistakable among birds.
Wrens begin nesting from March through August and can raise two broods in one season. Male wrens build many nests, sometimes as many as five or six, for their intended mates. Biologists think this may be the male wren's strategy for keeping other birds from nesting in his territory. This is sometimes a problem along bluebird nest box trails, where the numerous wren nests discourage bluebirds from nesting and it is not legal to remove wren nests from bluebird boxes! Wrens are protected by law and may not be taken or harassed and their nests may not be destroyed. Wrens lay four to nine eggs which hatch in about two and a half weeks. The young leave the nest about two weeks later.
House wrens are probably the most common wren species and the one most likely to nest in a backyard nest box. These wrens like to live in deciduous woods and wood edges, backyards, parks, and gardens. House wrens mostly migrate south in the winter. Male wrens arrive back to calim their territoeis before females so that they can begin building a choice of nests for the female. When the females arrive, they choose their nests and lay their eggs. Surprisingly, house wrens have been seen feeding and caring for the young of other species. House wrens, like all wrens, are primarily insect eaters and favor the gypsy moth, which can injure backyard and forest trees.
Druids considered the wren 'supreme among all birds.' It was the sacred bird of the Isle of Man, which used to be a shrine of the dead and the dwelling-place of the Moon Goddess who cared for pagan souls.
It was the Druid King of the Birds and auguries were drawn from its chirping; in Celtic lore the wren is prophetic and the direction from which it calls is highly significant. The bird was sacred to Taliesin. In Scotland it was the Lady of Heaven's Hen and killing it was considered extremely unlucky; but in England and France there was a Hunting of the Wren on St Stephen's Day, 26 December, a ceremony which rose from an ancient pre-Christian rite. Hunters dressed ritually, killed a wren, hung it on a pole and took it in procession, demanding money; they then buried it in the churchyard.
It was associated with the underworld and these hunting rituals were connected with the winter solstice and the death of vegetation. In Ireland it was known as 'Fionn's doctor' and was hunted by the Wren Boys in much the same ritual as in Britain and France on St Stephens Day. The bird was representing the Sleeping Lord who, whether Cronos, Bran or Arthur must cede place, however great his reign.
In Ireland, St. Stephen's Day is the day for "Hunting the Wren" or "Going on the Wren." Originally, groups of small boys would hunt for a wren, and then chase the bird until they either caught it or it died from exhaustion. The dead bird was tied to the top of a pole or holly bush, which was decorated with ribbons or colored paper.
Early in the morning of St. Stephen's Day, the wren was carried from house to house by the boys, who wore straw masks or blackened their faces with burnt cork, and dressed in old clothes (often women's dresses.) At each house, the boys sing the Wren Boys' song. There are many versions and variations of this song, including the following:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, On St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze, Although he is little, his family is great, I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat. My box would speak, if it had but a tongue, And two or three shillings, would do it not wrong, Sing holly, sing ivy--sing ivy, sing holly, A drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.
And if you draw it of the best, I hope in heaven your soul will rest; But if you draw it of the small, It won't agree with these wren boys at all.
Sometimes those who gave money were given a feather from the wren for good luck. The money collected by the Wren Boys was used to hold a dance for the whole village.
There are different legends about the origin of this custom. One is that St. Stephen, hiding from his enemies in a bush, was betrayed by a chattering wren. The wren, like St. Stephen, should be hunted down and stoned to death. Another legend holds that during the Viking raids of the 700's, Irish soldiers were betrayed by a wren as they were sneaking up on a Viking camp in the dead of night. A wren began to eat breadcrumbs left on the head of a drum, and the rat-a-tat-tat of its beak woke the drummer, who sounded the alarm and woke the camp, leading to the defeat of the Irish soldiers and the continuing persecution of the wren.
The pursuit and capture of the wren is also related to the pagan custom of sacrificing a sacred symbol at year's end. In contrast to the legends of the wren as betrayer, the wren has also been revered in Ireland as the "king of the birds." An Irish folktale tells of a contest held among birds to see which could fly the highest and should be accorded this title. The eagle soared higher than any other bird, but lost the contest when a clever wren, who had been hiding on the back of the eagle, flew off the eagle and soared higher in the sky.
The custom of going on the wren fell into disfavor around the turn of the century, and died out completely in most parts of Ireland, but has been revived throughout much of the country. Wrens are no longer killed-- an artificial wren may be used, or a real wren may be carried about in a cage.The "Wren Boys" now include girls, and adults often accompany the young people. Folk costumes and traditional music and dancing are often part of going on the wren, and the money collected is often used for community or school projects.
House Wars! A battle for residential rights to a nest box.
Within half an hour of placing a nest box, about a meter from the ground and on the inside of my backyard fence, it was claimed by a pair of noisy and industrious House Sparrows. Nest building began immediately and by the end of the second week the female began laying her eggs. Tiny white and brown speckled eggs, one each day for five days. She then began incubating. I intended to monitor this nest to determine the length of incubation and the development of the young.
However, on the second day of incubation disaster struck the nest.
As I approached the nest to check on progress I noticed eggshells scattered on the ground beneath the nest. At first I assumed that a Blue Jay, Magpie or, perhaps, a cat was responsible but the nest box was quite deep and the entrance has a predator guard.
While I was puzzling over this I became aware of a rich, bubbly warble. A song I had not heard in my area before. I located the source immediately as the songster was cheerfully announcing his arrival from a nearby perch. A House Wren.
Admittedly not the most excitingly colorful bird, his song and spirited nature more than make up for lack of pizzazz. As I watched he approached the nest box and began throwing out bits and pieces of the Sparrow nest. That nest had been packed with all sorts of material including dryer lint, dog hair, string, leaves, grass and bits of plastic. It took the Wren quite some time and determination to eradicate all evidence of prior occupancy.
He then proceeded to build his own nest beginning with small twigs and grasses. All the while he was occupied in his task he also maintained a constant vigilance for Sparrow attacks, chasing them off when they got too close.
Each pursuit was followed by a burst of victory song from his favorite perch.
Six to eight pinkish white eggs will be placed in the nest and incubated for about two weeks before hatching. The young will be fed by both parents before fledging when they are about two weeks old.
A Wren's diet consists entirely of insects and, since I have plenty of those available, I hope they stay.
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