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Sunday 06:35-07:00
The Living World is a gentle weekend natural history programme, presented by Lionel Kelleway, which aims to broadcast the best, most intimate encounters with British wildlife.
LISTEN AGAINListen 25min
Listen to 24 December
Lionel Kelleway
Sunday 24 December 2006
A Wren
A close up of a Wren in nesting in a bird box.  (c) BBC


Lionel Kelleway goes in search of a tiny bird with a big voice, when he joins ornithologist David Harper on the trail of the Wren.

What the tiny wren lacks in size it makes up for with its feisty nature as Lionel Kelleway discovers when he joins ornithologist, David Harper from Sussex University for a guide to the habits of the tiny bird with the big voice; one of the few birds which can be heard singing in mid-winter. As Lionel discovers, it’s this song of the Wren that also landed it in trouble according to legend, and led to the traditional Wren Hunts on St Stephen’s Day.

Lionel and David visit Cambridge University Botanic Garden in search of wrens; this is a 40 acre (16 hectare) garden less than a mile from the city centre. They choose Cambridge, because its here that Edward Allsworthy Armstrong famously studied wrens from1943-1955. The University Botanic Garden with its variety of habitats and shrubs offers good feeding and nesting areas for the birds.

The wren is one of the most widespread species in Britain and Ireland and also one of our smallest birds, measuring 9-10am. It has a long thin bill and big feet. With a small tail often cocked above its back, and short neck, it’s often described as resembling a small brown ball. The upper parts are reddish brown, and underparts buff coloured, both with delicate bars. It has a long pale stripe above the eyes. Wrens are energetic birds always on the move. Their flight is fast straight and generally close to the ground.

The Latin or scientific name for the wren is Troglodytes troglodytes, meaning hole dweller. Wrens build nests in holes, and in thickets, where they are well protected. The nest is a hollow ball of moss and leaves. The male builds the nest and will often build more than one. The female chooses one of the nests and stays in it.
Wrens can be found in a wide variety of habitats in Britain and Ireland. Their chief breeding habitat is deciduous and mixed woods, especially alongside streams. They are also found on clifftops, farmland and moorland. They will visit and breed in mature gardens and in winter, many move into reedbeds.

Wrens defend territories throughout the year, but communal roosts sometimes form in cold weather, and there are records of up to 63 using a single nestbox.

The call is a loud tic-tic-tic that has rattling quality. The wren song is powerful for such a small bird. The song is a cascade of notes, with a trembling quality more generally ending with a loud and distinctive trill.

Wren populations are very variable. A bad winter can kill off nearly 90% of the population. But in a good summer there can be a population explosion, causing wrens to become the most common birds in Britain.

The Wren Boys: there was a tradition in parts of Great Britain and Ireland of hunting wrens in one day – in Ireland it was S Stephens’ day 26 December. In parts of Britain it was Christmas Eve or Christmas Day itself. Gangs of boys called ‘wren boys’ would hunt and kill a wren. They would then dress up in costume, tie the dead wren to a stick and parade around the town with it, singing The Wren Song. People would give them money – and when enough money was collected there would be a big party and the wren would be solemnly buried.

The origins of the custom are not really known. There are various stories told about the wren betraying a saint or some soldiers, but it’s quite likely that these have been invented after the event, but they make a good story nonetheless!
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