Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 13.3.15

on .

Fame was once a rare commodity, often not sought but commonly bestowed upon heroes and heroines, stars of screen and stage and great political figures. These days however, increasing numbers of folk seek fame in ways, which just a few decades ago, would not have been possible. The all encompassing eye of the camera however, be it by television, these days by means of the internet, or indeed by the actions of those who have become known as the paparazzi, has changed all that. Indeed, in some respects, social media in its many forms, has turned such things utterly upside down. And, in addition, talent programmes seem to have become not only an easy way of filling two or more hours of TV programming but also an easy way for ordinary folk to seek and find exposure; to become famous, if for most of them, all too briefly!


So, suddenly a small, furry creature finds itself on front pages and beamed across the world via the internet, for hitching a lift on the colourful back of another, this time, feathered creature. The sharp-eyed photographer who snapped the weasel taking a ride on the back of a green woodpecker, has himself achieved sudden notoriety whilst unwittingly, the aviating weasel has also suddenly accomplished a totally unexpected level of fame. It was a remarkable example of opportunism on the part of the snapper and of course, on the part of the weasel too.


Green woodpeckers, despite their reputation as tree climbers, spend a high proportion of their time on terra firma, scavenging for the likes of ants. There was a time in this airt when the chuckling of these attractive red and green birds was a familiar sound. However, in recent times, green woodpeckers have been pushed out by increasing numbers of great spotted woodpeckers, which seem to more assertive by nature. There is, whenever I watch these black, white and red woodpeckers, always a sense of animosity towards all other birds. When such a woodpecker is on the nuts for instance, nothing else it seems, dares to venture there. 
Therefore it must be assumed that the said woodpecker of front-page fame, was scouring the ground for ants when its path crossed with that of the weasel. Weasels are ambitious little creatures, the ‘mighty atoms’ of the natural world, always looking for feeding opportunities and never afraid to take on the role of David in confronting Goliath! Despite its minuscule size, a weasel will not hesitate to attack a fully-grown rabbit despite the fact that Brer Rabbit is several times the weasel’s size and weight. Thus I’m sure, the weasel saw in the woodpecker, a meal … of gargantuan proportions!


What the weasel clearly did not bargain for, was the flight of fancy it was about to take. I can only presume that its experience of flight was something of a shock and that it very soon decamped. Thus that first flying lesson would in all probability be brief and perhaps painfully learned. Perhaps it would be wise for any weasel with aeronautical ambitions in future, to ignore any impulse to repeat similar attacks!


Weasels – and stoats for that matter – are creatures that attract a variety of reactions. Our very language is of course, not very kind or complimentary towards them. A person described as being ‘weasely’ or ‘a stoat’ is generally perceived to be someone not to be trusted; a person of very doubtful pedigree and reputation. Indeed, such is the reputation of both weasels and stoats that stories abound of them launching attacks on people. Keepers certainly don’t like them and kill them at virtually every opportunity as part of the defence of their precious pheasants. And this despite the widely known fact that both stoats and weasels account for the destruction of many small rodents, widely regarded, especially by farmers, as pests!


However, like my farming friends I have a soft spot for these amazing wee creatures. Thus when a farmhouse dwelling friend asked me what she should do about a weasel she found in her house, I told her to leave it be. I had been aware that my friend had for long waged war against invading mice and suggested that she now had a key ally in her struggle to keep these small rodents at bay in the said weasel. Sure enough, the sound, so familiar to country living folk, of mice chewing at skirting boards or rustling about within the ancient walls of their houses, has in recent days, in this instance, gradually diminished. The weasel has not been seen again and I suspect it has done its job, consumed the mice or at least sent the majority of them into panic-stricken retreat and thus has since moved on to other rodent territories. Silence tells its own story.
Small rodents are the main food source of food for both weasels and stoats and with their exceptionally slender bodies and short little legs, they are able to access rodent runs and dens easily. Stoats are also extremely efficient rabbit hunters too. By reputation both are relentless in pursuit of their victims and that utter determination is communicated very quickly to those victims. Indeed such are the powers of a stoat for instance, in its pursuit of a rabbit, that its intended victim is eventually seized with such terror that it slowly grinds to a halt, ending up a quivering, stationary wreck, often screaming pathetically, as its inevitable fate approaches. Both stoats and weasels are relentless hunters, once on the trail of their victims, sticking inexorably to that scent until their target is reached.


Perhaps the victims become almost hypnotised? After all, both stoats and weasels are familiar practitioners of the ‘dark art’ of hypnosis. I have on many occasions been amazed by the gyrations of both of these exponents of a hunting skill, which seems to be their particular prerogative alone. Theirs is, as far as I know, a unique method of enticing potential victims to their deaths and of course, into the hungry jaws of the perpetrators. A weasel for instance, that conducted, before my very eyes, an intricate square dance which took it across a track down one hedgerowed side of it, back across the track and along the opposite hedge bottom … repeatedly! As the performance continued so the birds roosting in the hedges became more inquisitive and slipped their way down through the branches. One was persuaded to leave the safety of the hedge altogether and immediately became the weasel’s next meal as the performance came to an abrupt halt.


And a stoat which similarly began to perform a complex series of acrobatics, somersaulting, chasing it own tail until it was whirling round and round like a dancing dervish, putting on a real virtuoso performance. Like the aforementioned weasel, this performing stoat similarly so entranced the birds in the shrubs and trees around it, that they too let down their guards and came ever closer in order to get a better look at this extraordinary caper. One of course, came too close and instantly the curtain came down to close the act. Dinner was served!


Such antics are all part of the stoat and weasel armoury designed to satisfy what at times appears to be a ravenous appetite. However, the weasel propelled into the air on the back of a woodpecker had perhaps bitten off more than it could chew. Yet, for a moment it was famous!

Country View 10.3.15

on .

Fame was once a rare commodity, often not sought but commonly bestowed upon heroes and heroines, stars of screen and stage and great political figures. These days however, increasing numbers of folk seek fame in ways, which just a few decades ago, would not have been possible. The all encompassing eye of the camera however, be it by television, these days by means of the internet, or indeed by the actions of those who have become known as the paparazzi, has changed all that. Indeed, in some respects, social media in its many forms, has turned such things utterly upside down. And, in addition, talent programmes seem to have become not only an easy way of filling two or more hours of TV programming but also an easy way for ordinary folk to seek and find exposure; to become famous, if for most of them, all too briefly!


So, suddenly a small, furry creature finds itself on front pages and beamed across the world via the internet, for hitching a lift on the colourful back of another, this time, feathered creature. The sharp-eyed photographer who snapped the weasel taking a ride on the back of a green woodpecker, has himself achieved sudden notoriety whilst unwittingly, the aviating weasel has also suddenly accomplished a totally unexpected level of fame. It was a remarkable example of opportunism on the part of the snapper and of course, on the part of the weasel too.


Green woodpeckers, despite their reputation as tree climbers, spend a high proportion of their time on terra firma, scavenging for the likes of ants. There was a time in this airt when the chuckling of these attractive red and green birds was a familiar sound. However, in recent times, green woodpeckers have been pushed out by increasing numbers of great spotted woodpeckers, which seem to more assertive by nature. There is, whenever I watch these black, white and red woodpeckers, always a sense of animosity towards all other birds. When such a woodpecker is on the nuts for instance, nothing else it seems, dares to venture there. 
Therefore it must be assumed that the said woodpecker of front-page fame, was scouring the ground for ants when its path crossed with that of the weasel. Weasels are ambitious little creatures, the ‘mighty atoms’ of the natural world, always looking for feeding opportunities and never afraid to take on the role of David in confronting Goliath! Despite its minuscule size, a weasel will not hesitate to attack a fully-grown rabbit despite the fact that Brer Rabbit is several times the weasel’s size and weight. Thus I’m sure, the weasel saw in the woodpecker, a meal … of gargantuan proportions!


What the weasel clearly did not bargain for, was the flight of fancy it was about to take. I can only presume that its experience of flight was something of a shock and that it very soon decamped. Thus that first flying lesson would in all probability be brief and perhaps painfully learned. Perhaps it would be wise for any weasel with aeronautical ambitions in future, to ignore any impulse to repeat similar attacks!


Weasels – and stoats for that matter – are creatures that attract a variety of reactions. Our very language is of course, not very kind or complimentary towards them. A person described as being ‘weasely’ or ‘a stoat’ is generally perceived to be someone not to be trusted; a person of very doubtful pedigree and reputation. Indeed, such is the reputation of both weasels and stoats that stories abound of them launching attacks on people. Keepers certainly don’t like them and kill them at virtually every opportunity as part of the defence of their precious pheasants. And this despite the widely known fact that both stoats and weasels account for the destruction of many small rodents, widely regarded, especially by farmers, as pests!


However, like my farming friends I have a soft spot for these amazing wee creatures. Thus when a farmhouse dwelling friend asked me what she should do about a weasel she found in her house, I told her to leave it be. I had been aware that my friend had for long waged war against invading mice and suggested that she now had a key ally in her struggle to keep these small rodents at bay in the said weasel. Sure enough, the sound, so familiar to country living folk, of mice chewing at skirting boards or rustling about within the ancient walls of their houses, has in recent days, in this instance, gradually diminished. The weasel has not been seen again and I suspect it has done its job, consumed the mice or at least sent the majority of them into panic-stricken retreat and thus has since moved on to other rodent territories. Silence tells its own story.


Small rodents are the main food source of food for both weasels and stoats and with their exceptionally slender bodies and short little legs, they are able to access rodent runs and dens easily. Stoats are also extremely efficient rabbit hunters too. By reputation both are relentless in pursuit of their victims and that utter determination is communicated very quickly to those victims. Indeed such are the powers of a stoat for instance, in its pursuit of a rabbit, that its intended victim is eventually seized with such terror that it slowly grinds to a halt, ending up a quivering, stationary wreck, often screaming pathetically, as its inevitable fate approaches. Both stoats and weasels are relentless hunters, once on the trail of their victims, sticking inexorably to that scent until their target is reached.


Perhaps the victims become almost hypnotised? After all, both stoats and weasels are familiar practitioners of the ‘dark art’ of hypnosis. I have on many occasions been amazed by the gyrations of both of these exponents of a hunting skill, which seems to be their particular prerogative alone. Theirs is, as far as I know, a unique method of enticing potential victims to their deaths and of course, into the hungry jaws of the perpetrators. A weasel for instance, that conducted, before my very eyes, an intricate square dance which took it across a track down one hedgerowed side of it, back across the track and along the opposite hedge bottom … repeatedly! As the performance continued so the birds roosting in the hedges became more inquisitive and slipped their way down through the branches. One was persuaded to leave the safety of the hedge altogether and immediately became the weasel’s next meal as the performance came to an abrupt halt.


And a stoat which similarly began to perform a complex series of acrobatics, somersaulting, chasing it own tail until it was whirling round and round like a dancing dervish, putting on a real virtuoso performance. Like the aforementioned weasel, this performing stoat similarly so entranced the birds in the shrubs and trees around it, that they too let down their guards and came ever closer in order to get a better look at this extraordinary caper. One of course, came too close and instantly the curtain came down to close the act. Dinner was served!


Such antics are all part of the stoat and weasel armoury designed to satisfy what at times appears to be a ravenous appetite. However, the weasel propelled into the air on the back of a woodpecker had perhaps bitten off more than it could chew. Yet, for a moment it was famous!

Country View 3.3.15

on .

Winter returned with a vengeance this week, prompting bizarre thoughts and dreams perhaps, of a white Easter to come! But it must be March. For a start, the siskins have suddenly turned up, competing energetically with the goldfinches at the nijer seed feeders. They are such neat and colourful little birds, providing delightful flashes of green and yellow and full of verve, the wee cock birds resplendent in their little black caps. As seems always to be the case, they are noticeable by their absence for most of the winter but just as we are beginning to welcome the sounds and sights of approaching spring, they suddenly arrive, having presumably sustained themselves on natural food until now. That natural food comprises mainly of the seeds of alders, birches, conifers and thistles and docks and it is perhaps the diminishing supply, especially of alder seeds, by the end of February that prompts their arrival in gardens.


Like many of the seed eating birds however, once they are in breeding mode they will also help themselves to invertebrates during the summer months because of the extra protein they derive from them, which of course, is an essential ‘additive’ especially beneficial for their youngsters. However, the short but very fine bill of the siskin tells us that this is a bird well equipped to prise seeds from trees and plants.


Whilst they are quite feisty birds, they are unquestionably also very sociable birds, nesting in wee communities in which pecking orders quickly establish themselves. As spring advances you may for instance, witness the male birds passing food to the females, part of the courtship rituals, which cement bonds between pairs. However, you may also witness male birds passing food to other males, an act, which recognises the superiority of the recipients of such gifts and the acceptance on the part of the gift providers, of the rather more revered status of their peers! The prelude to these acts of subservience is the establishment of that same pecking order! That is when that little bit of feistiness is particularly evident. We do have a little clue as to which of the male birds are nearer to the top of the pecking order. They are the birds with the more prominent black bibs.


Very evident too, has been their merry little trilling, further evidence that despite a blustery, snowy and not to mention soggy and chilly start to the first official month of spring, the mood is nevertheless infecting them. Siskins are fast moving, agile little birds and their high pitched trilling, buzzing and rapidly delivered song is a reflection of that energetic approach to life. Essentially woodland birds, they exhibit the kind of agility more commonly associated with the likes of bluetits and indeed goldfinches, happy to cling on upside down to either vegetation or feeders. They are commonly found in our modern spruce forests and with the considerable expansion of that particular habitat in recent decades, their numbers have consequently increased and their presence in bird friendly gardens has become increasingly evident.


More common in Scotland due to the predominance of the said conifer forests, the siskin once gloried in the very fancy name of ‘aberdavine’ a name tag apparently granted to it back in the eighteenth century and possibly deriving from an interpretation of the pseudonym, ‘alder finch’. It is also known in some parts as ‘the blackheaded thistle finch’ and more prosaically perhaps as ‘ the golden wren’!


And, it must be March because the rooks are back at the rookery. Tradition tells us that rooks return to their high rise towns and cities on St David’s Day, the first day of March. Well, they began to assemble at our local rookery during the final two days of February, so I presume they are keen to make an early start to their annual courtship rituals. And, like the siskins, rooks are very community minded. However, they are perhaps not quite so well mannered! Rook society is by most measures, rather more raucous and, although very well ordered in some respects, it is nevertheless, perhaps more like human society, thus at times perhaps, somewhat more chaotic!


As is well known, pecking orders are very basic ingredients of rook society. Much has been said and written about so-called ‘rook parliaments’, in which it is claimed, justice is meted out by ‘rook judiciary’ to miscreants and troublemakers. On such occasions, a gathering of apparently ‘senior’ rooks comes together and confronts the alleged criminal before summarily assaulting it violently by pecking it, often to death. I have seen such ‘parliaments’ or ‘courts’ in action and the most likely explanation seems to be that the victim is a diseased bird, which therefore, poses a threat to the whole community. In such matters, there is no place for sentiment. Communities of birds are essentially pragmatic and clearly resolve to tackle such threats very directly and indeed, in most instances, finally.


And, we know that rooks are highly intelligent birds. Indeed they may be regarded as being amongst the intelligentsia of avian society. They are for instance, capable of fashioning tools. Captive rooks, in order to reach a container of food situated in a tube, have been known to bend a piece of wire so it now had a hook on the end before lowering it into the tube to hook the handle of the container and raise it! Rooks on another occasion, dropped stones into a tube of water in which floated a juicy worm, thus raising the level of water until they could reach the worm. Such acts clearly require a remarkable degree of reasoning. Rooks, it seems, have enough brain-power to work such things out!


However, behaviour at rookeries can sometimes go well beyond the pale. Common theft is a regular occurrence with neighbours extremely ready, willing and able to pilfer choice nesting material from nearby nests if they are unattended. And there is also plenty of evidence of infidelity, which is also frequently practised when partners are away either gathering more nesting material or of course, seeking out food. Yet, whilst such activities might imply a high degree of ill discipline in flocks, there is a well established hierarchy in which all birds well and truly know their place in the scheme of things. Senior ranked birds for instance, always get the best feeding. If you see a flock of rooks feeding on the ground, you can be sure that the ‘elders of the kirk’ will be situated at the heart of that mobile community, enjoying the best of the food. Meanwhile, the ‘minions’ among the flock will be out on the periphery where the feeding is not so good.


But, these are supreme opportunists. Supermarket car parks are good places for rooks (and gulls, crows and magpies) to hang out, where our own profligate society provides them with a good living of food scraps and dropped shopping items. In such places, you may enjoy close encounters of a feathered kind with these vagabonds. And from my own observations, rooks always seem to have that extra dimension, a mischievous glint in those dark eyes. With rooks, that denotes that they naturally always have an eye for the main chance … whatever that chance might be! And, it is March, coming in this time, more like a lion than a lamb but in whichever guise, a time when thoughts turn to … well, you know! And as one old verse tells us, 
Nae hurry wi’ your corns,
Nae hurry wi’ your harrows;
Snaw lies ahint the dyke,
Mair may come and fill the furrows. 

Country View 24.2.15

on .

Sheep and cattle now graze where once, whales and the fishes of the sea cavorted. A day or two ago, there was a stark reminder that long ago, these acres were indeed once submerged beneath the sea. The piercing, far carrying piping of oyster-catchers echoing across these low lying acres provided further evidence of the advancing tide of spring, for these will be birds, newly arrived from today’s not far distant marine environment to which, over the past few thousand years the sea has retreated. Despite last weekend’s reminder that winter still has a sting in its tail, with the hills that encircle what was once a sea loch, bearing a good covering of fresh snow, the advance of that seasonal tide’s advance, if perhaps temporarily put on hold, is nevertheless inevitable. Nature knows that inexorably, as sure as night follows day, the new season approaches.


The hesitant arrival of the season of re-birth has been serenaded by sweet singing blackbirds for a week or two now, their voices defying and challenging the latest wintry blast. And the sighting of those little pods of peewits, also a week or two ago, was perhaps the start of a movement of avian life which, as the days continue to lengthen, will eventually gather momentum until they will literally form a feathered avalanche. Many of the later arrivals will have flown thousands rather than mere tens of miles. Just now that movement is no more than a trickle with the new arrivals, as short distance migrants, simply trans-locating from relatively nearby seashores to these inland acres.


Oyster-catchers in relative terms are quite new to such adventures. The forbears of this current modestly travelling band of migrants, began to examine inland acres not much more than a hundred years ago. And of course by no means do all oyster-catchers make such a journey. Indeed, most of them remain anchored to sea-lashed shorelines. Wherever you may go to Scotland’s coastal fringes, their frenetic piping is so much a part of that environment. Oyster-catchers incidentally, do not consume oysters! They are however, adept at breaking down the hard shelled defences of cockles, mussels and a variety of other crustaceans. They will avidly consume small crabs and of course, worms too. Indeed, it was perhaps in their pursuit of worms and other ‘soft’ invertebrate life, that they were encouraged on their initial inland explorations.


Some of these striking black and white birds are quite subtle in the way they prise open the shellfish, seeking out the abductor muscle that holds the shell tightly closed and carefully snipping it to disable the creature, as a surgeon might conduct a delicate operation. Others are rather more direct in their approach, depending more on a full frontal attack and literally hammering them open, albeit that they too target that same muscle in a more direct way. The result is that oyster-catchers raised by parents using the more refined method, tend to have finer, narrower bills, more pointed at the end whereas the ‘hammerers’ tend to have blunter bills.


Their ultimate fate as ‘artisans’ or ‘tradesmen’, thereafter, presumably depends upon their observations of the parent birds whilst they are being fed as youngsters. However, in addition, like most waders, the oyster-catcher is equipped with a sensitive tip to that long, bright, orange coloured bills. Thus it can literally feel the movement of hidden underground prey as it prods the ground. Sea pies I suppose ‘shop’ quite deeply in the soil, with their relatively long beaks. Curlews dig even deeper whilst the likes of peewits don’t get too far beneath the soil’s surface.


Perhaps, such explorations of these inland environments, came at a time when agriculture was gearing itself up for a greater capacity of production. Prior to and at the beginning of the ‘war to end all wars’ much more land was surrendered to the blades of the plough. Hence, more invertebrate life was exposed and inevitably, such riches were quickly exploited, in particular by a wide variety of birds. Gulls at that time, were also largely confined to the marine environment and perhaps they too, arch opportunists that they are, were eager to exploit this new source of food.


Gulls, most notably common gulls, black-headed gulls and lesser black backs, hereabouts and elsewhere perhaps herring gulls too, were particularly quick to recognise opportunities presented to them by that newly created, ‘brown’ farmland. Thus many so-called ‘sea’-gulls, are now firmly established miles away from the sea. Many of them indeed, may never see the rolling waves in their entire lives! I always find it amazing that within minutes of starting up a tractor prior to beginning to plough, hordes of gulls appear as if from nowhere, to feast upon the insect life turned up by the steel blades. They must have a remarkably efficient system of communication!


The movement of oyster-catchers probably started when they discovered newly turned over farmland close to the coastal areas which were their natural home. And once they discovered its plentiful riches, they may have gradually travelled further and further inland until some of them presumably decided that inland acres were well worth exploring as breeding grounds. There is always, as February heads towards March, a sense of anticipation, which somehow seems to be fulfilled when those first shrill, ringing trills echo across the inland landscape. Winter as yet, may not be in full retreat yet it will, ‘ere long, be supplanted by spring and the sea-pies send out that message, more loudly than most!


The striking black and white markings of the oyster-catchers gave rise to several legends, especially in the remote islands off our west coast where the bird is often known as ‘Gilliebride’, or the Ghillie of St Bride. Tradition tells us that this is a bird under the special protection of the patron saint of birds, St Bride. And there is a legend, which tells us that the oyster-catcher once covered Christ with seaweed to conceal him from His enemies, when He lay exhausted on the shore. Other names such as ‘mussel-picker’ (highly appropriate), ‘pleep’, ‘sea-pyot’ and ‘red neb’ are used in different parts of the country. Surprisingly, it has, as far as I know, never been called ‘red eye’, despite its very red eyes!


The ‘pleep’ sobriquet is also used to describe the redshank another wading bird which was some years ago, extremely common in these parts and which has over the years, presumably followed the same route inland as the oyster-catcher. Unfortunately, redshank numbers, at least locally, have declined markedly in recent years. Whereas the assertive, neurotic and far carrying call of the oyster-catcher is unmistakable, the redshank’s call is as high-pitched, though marginally softer and never seems to carry as far.


That message however, rings out like no other. The oyster-catchers are piping in the spring … maybe! 

Country View 18.2.15

on .

Love is in the air! Even if memories of St Valentine’s Day are already fast fading, to satisfy a constant quest for people to keep spending, now we move on to the next wee bonanza, Mother’s Day! However, there is unquestionably, a gradual rise in the volume of bird vocalisation, with snatches of song now a regular daily feature. Preparations for forthcoming courtship rituals are clearly well in hand and if there is not yet a proper dawn chorus to speak of, the dawning of each day is welcomed more and more enthusiastically by the avian classes. Great tits in particular, are leading the way, their voices more assertive by the day, ringing out ever more loudly. But others, one by one, are joining in.


Redbreasts are certainly getting in the mood. The little passages of jumbled up notes that characterise the robin’s winter warblings, are gradually assuming rather more ordered proportions. Now it sounds more like a proper musical offering, less hesitant and sung with that bit more purpose. Its structure is beginning to become a little more certain and a good deal more assertive. Redbreast is beginning to warm to the task! So too is his perennial mate!

A Jenny wren issued its typically vociferous volley of notes the other day. One of the smallest of our birds, its voice nevertheless belies its minuscule proportions, being voluminous in the extreme. I reckon, ounce for ounce, vocally, the wren punches way above its weight! Indeed, this is in that sense, a real lightweight masquerading as a vocal heavyweight! ‘The robin and the wren, are God Almighty’s Cock and hen’, goes the old adage. For reasons largely unknown, robins and wrens have always been so closely associated that they were once widely regarded as the cock and hen of the same species. That both tend to live in the same kind of habitat and that robins seem to tolerate the close proximity of wrens, more readily, certainly than they tolerate the presence of their own kind, perhaps meant that they seemed somehow to be ‘mates’.


Both birds are quick of movement, pert and in their own ways, attractive. They share an aptitude for winter music too albeit that the wren is perhaps rather less vocal and in the bleaker months is more concerned with winter survival than vocalisation. Being so small (the smallest except for the goldcrest among our native residents), on especially cold nights, body heat is all too easily lost, hence the endearing habit among wrens of many birds cramming into small spaces. On one occasion as many as sixty wrens were counted emerging from a single nesting box one winter’s morning. Such instances of surviving a night by playing ‘sardines’ are quite commonplace and whilst conditions may sometimes get close to intolerable, with several layers of birds accumulating, the benefits accrued from the heat generated, can literally amount to life over death!


Wrens are by reputation, very special wee birds. Our ancient Druid ancestors regarded them as sacred birds and the wren has at times been known as ‘God’s bird’ and ‘Our Ladies Hen’, pseudonyms of course, gleaned from our Christian history. And yet, ancient history, much of it originating in the pre-Christian era, sees the wren featuring in rituals in which the bird is often deliberately killed. Many such events occurred traditionally around the Yuletide festival, some on Boxing Day (alternatively, St Stephen’s Day), some on New Year’s Day, whilst some seem to have occurred on St Valentine’s Day too. Wherever and whenever such events took place, it would seem that with regard to wrens, love was not at that time in the air!


Wren hunts appear to have been conducted all over Europe and in many parts of Britain too, albeit that there are few instances of these traditions emanating from Scotland. Sometimes the wren was slain and then paraded before an assembled crowd on a bier supported by strong men who visibly strained to lift this, the ‘smallest’ of birds! One, much more humane tradition was conducted in Pembrokeshire during the ‘Days of Misrule’ which spanned the period between Christmas and Epiphany. During that period an insignificant member of the community, usually a nondescript boy, would be appointed as temporary King. To add to the mystique, the sacred bird, a wren, would be captured, caged and bedecked in ribbons, to be paraded by the new King. The boy would then release the wren, a happier outcome than that of most of these rituals.


The wren is by nature a consumer of insects, its winter feeding probably depending quite heavily upon small spiders. But, as spring approaches, male wrens are bitten by the ‘building bug’! Indeed, such is his enthusiasm, that the average cock Jenny wren (if that is not an anachronism?) is so seized by the approach of the season of renewal, that he is moved to begin the construction of the shells of several nests. Usually he may begin four of five but in exceptional cases he may even start up as many as ten!


This marks for him the overture to the breeding season. His nests, not pristine or complete, will in due course, be inspected by potential partners for their suitability. He will attract the females by unleashing what must surely be the most explosive bursts of song produced by any of our native birds. In just over five seconds a cock wren utters no fewer than fifty-six notes. Furthermore it sends the message forth so loudly that it almost seems beyond the bounds of possibility that such a tiny bird can generate such a loud explosion of song.


So along a suitable mate comes; the nests carefully inspected. The bond is sealed when at last she enters one of the structures and in time the two will work together to finish the house-building task, the final stage of which is the lining, mostly completed with the installation of feathers. However, if this may seem to be the denouement of a perfect romance, I’m afraid it is not. Why, if he has built several nests, should all the others go to waste? Cock wrens do not fit our vision of married bliss for there is every possibility of another female being encouraged to take up residence in one of the others. Wrens are thus polygamous, which may indeed be the reason why they are among the most numerous of our breeding birds!


These ambitious building plans may well be under way already. The wren, known technically as ‘troglodytes troglodytes’, or translated, ‘cave dweller’, is one of the birds which is always eager to enter the spirit of the spring season, with his zeal for creating cosy homes for two … or three perhaps?

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods