Tiny Winter Wren possesses big spirit

10:48 am | December 19, 2011

Stepping onto the front porch to leave for work on the morning of Dec. 14, I disturbed a Winter Wren. This itty-bitty bird proceeded to scold me with notes far out of proportion with its tiny body. Winter Wrens are normally extremely shy and difficult to observe, but this one came out in the open and allowed good looks.

Photo by Donna Dewhurst/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - The tiny Winter Wren possesses a song out of proportion to its body. Despite their dramatic difference in size, the Winter Wren delivers its song with 10 times more power than a crowing rooster. The Winter Wren does not usually sing during the winter months, but it is still quite vocal and can produce a variety of scolding notes.

When the bird calmed, it dropped onto a sand bar at the edge of Simerly Creek. That’s when I began to suspect I had probably interrupted its morning bath.

There are two wrens — Carolina Wren and House Wren — that can be considered common in Northeast Tennessee. The Winter Wren can be found in the region throughout the year, if you know where to look. In the summer, these tiny wrens move to higher elevations on Roan Mountain and Unaka Mountain to nest and rear young. In the fall, they begin moving off the mountains to spend the winter in thickets and tangles of vegetation.

Two other wrens — Sedge Wren and Marsh Wren — are mostly encountered in the region during their spring and fall migrations.

At one time another wren — the Bewick’s Wren — was a rather commonplace bird in Northeast Tennessee, but this wren began to disappear from the region several decades ago and is now basically absent and nearly non-existent throughout the entire state.

The Winter Wren is unique among the family of wrens in being the only member of the 78 species to range outside of the Americas. This bird is also found in Europe, Asia and north Africa, with experts having recognized 35 or more subspecies.

I’ve heard Winter Wrens sing on Roan Mountain during the summer nesting season. The songs produced by the nesting wrens on Roan and other parts of the eastern United States are less complex than the songs of their western counterparts. The song of western wrens have about 36 notes per second on average, while the eastern songs have a mere 16 notes per second.

Winter Wrens will reside in a variety of forest habitats, but greater numbers occur in coniferous forests. In addition, they prefer habitats offering an abundance of fallen logs.

The wren is a focal point for many Christmas legends and traditions. Indeed, the Winter Wren is simply known as “Wren” in much of Europe, where many of these traditions held sway until recently.

A rather bizarre and brutal practice in England, France, Ireland and Wales was the annual “Wren Hunt,” which was once held on Christmas or Christmas Eve before becoming more associated with a tradition held the day after Christmas, which was also celebrated as St. Stephen’s Day.

To summarize this ritual, bands of men and boys would wander through the countryside scouring the brush in search of a wren. After spotting one of these little brown birds, they flushed it out of cover, often using sticks or stones to stun and, eventually, kill the wren.

Most birds with the power of flight are not going to easily submit to such tactics, but these bands proved determined and harried the poor birds to the point of exhaustion.

In what would seem overkill for such a tiny bird, the members of these roving bands of marauders would sometimes use bow and arrows or even pistols to kill their targeted prey. The man or youth delivering the killing blow was lauded as a hero and took the wren’s body as a trophy.

In some parts of Wales, perhaps people were not quite as cold-hearted toward wrens. There they merely captured a wren instead of killing it. Once they captured one, they would tie ribbons to the bird and release it.

In much of the lore and legend of Europe, the wren has been designated as the king, the little king, the king of birds or the hedge king, and has been ranked among those birds which it is extremely unlucky to kill.

Ironically, such superstition didn’t seem to prevent the custom of annually killing the wren, which prevailed into the 19th and 20th centuries in some locations. Perhaps boys were reluctant to give up this tradition because of the rewards they reaped. Part of the annual tradition was that when they returned to their town or village with the body of the wren, they received money or food for an evening feast.

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I received an email question from a reader named Jena this past week. She wanted to know if light (or white) bread or cornbread crumbs would be OK to feed to birds for winter food.

I’ll reply in two parts, because the answer is different for each food.

In general, I wouldn’t recommend feeding white breads to birds. It’s a common practice at parks with ponds housing ducks and geese, but most experts insist that the bread doesn’t offer much nutritional value to birds.

In addition, by filling up on the bread, the birds are less motivated to seek out food with real nutritional value. There’s another worry to consider. In wet, damp winter weather, white bread will quickly mold.

There’s an alternative for people who like to continue feeding ducks and geese. Instead of using bread, pick up a bag of shelled corn. The grain provides more substance than the bread.

The cornbread crumbs, on the other hand, might work if mixed with a little peanut butter. Roll the cornbread crumbs and peanut butter into little balls that can be offered at a platform feeder. Think of these peanut butter-cornbread balls as Christmas treats for your birds.

The oddest food I ever offered the birds at my home was a fried apple pie from McDonald’s. The pie was a few days old, so I placed it on a porch column near my bedroom window. A Carolina Wren discovered this rather large treat and proceeded to visit frequently, chipping off pieces of the crust with its bill before gobbling them up. The wren visited for several days, and the apple pie grew increasingly smaller with each visit.

I’m not sure if the wren completely finished the fried treat. The pie disappeared one night, possibly to be enjoyed by a visiting raccoon or opossum.

••••••

My other recent sightings include a Great Blue Heron that flew over Highway 19E near Arby’s in Elizabethton while I was driving home one evening last week.

A Belted Kingfisher has been lingering around the fish pond at my home, probably content to remain in the vicinity so long as the water doesn’t freeze. If the pond does obtain a frozen crust of ice, the kingfisher can always fish in Simerly Creek.

To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, call me at 297-9077 or send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or bstevens@starhq.

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