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140458.  Tue Jan 30, 2007 4:58 pm Reply with quote

In western Ontario, the Ojibwa name for a house wren is "he who makes a lot of noise for his size." Size for size, some tropical wrens sing louder than a cockerel crows.

In many wren species breeding pairs sing duets when they mate, though the vocal repertoire of the Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus), mainly amounts to ‘cheerily cheerily cheerily’ from the male and a chatter song from the female. House wrens (Troglodytes aedon), on the other hand, can produce up to 130 different song types. Unmated males sing for up to ten minutes, but mated males often sing a ‘whisper’ song around the time of copulation, perhaps to avoid giving away their mate’s location to other male wrens.

When a male house wren sets out to find a mate, he finds cavities anywhere he can – including locations where no sensible bird would build – and stuffs them full of twigs, often cramming them so full that he can’t even get in it himself. These flimsy constructions are called ‘cock nests’. When the female arrives, she chooses her preferred location and adds a soft lining to the nest.

So why does a fairy wren risk attracting predators and using all the energy in his tiny 10 gram body by singing at a rate of nine songs a minute for half an hour before dawn each day? Males with surplus nest sites use their songs to advertise for extra mates: the dawn chorus is a song of adultery. Dawn is the time when females leave their own territory and look for a partner outside the pair bond. She looks for the most attractive male, to ensure good looks, fertility, and skill at foraging in her offspring.

The dawn chorus alternates between a territorial chatter song and a trilling song. Older males sing longer trills than younger males – possibly to help females identify males more likely to have the characteristics they want in the father of their eggs. Competition doesn’t lead to variety though; males clumped together at the boundaries of their territories all sing similar songs.

Although one female and one male mate and share parental responsibilities, this is purely a social affair. Fairy wrens are a promiscuous lot. About 10% of males have more than one mate, and adult wrens often switch breeding partners between the first and second brood of a season. Breeding pairs often last only one season.

In some species, the children of the first brood stay with their parents, even after reaching sexual maturity, to help out with raising siblings from second or subsequent broods. Wren territories also often include ‘helper’ males alongside the social pair, who help protect the nest and feed the young.

Many myths cluster around wrens. For the Celts, the wren was king of the oak tree and symbolised the old year. There was a long tradition in England and Ireland of groups of boys hunting wrens on Boxing Day, singing songs and seeking money for doing so:

The wran, the wran
The King of all birds
On St. Stephen's Day,
was caught in the furze
And though he is little
His family is great
So rise up landlady,
And give us a treat.

Legends of the wren as the king of the birds appear in both European and Native American mythologies. The Dutch for wren is Winterkonig (Winter King) and the German is Zaunkönig (King of the Fencerow). In stories, the wren outwits the eagle in a flying competition by hiding among the eagle’s feathers and flying just a little higher. In Cherokee legend, the wren watches women in labour, rejoicing when a girl is born and lamenting a boy.

There are between 60 and 83 species of wren in the Americas, depending which authority you believe, but only one species of European wren (Troglodytes trogodytes), known as the northern or winter wren in the US.

140460.  Tue Jan 30, 2007 5:00 pm Reply with quote

Thanks to King of Quok, by the way, whose post on wrens led me to go away and research all this interesting stuff.

140661.  Wed Jan 31, 2007 8:09 am Reply with quote

These little birds are nicknamed Jenny Wrens. :)

140726.  Wed Jan 31, 2007 10:41 am Reply with quote

One of my aunts used to call me that when I was little :-)

King of Quok
140773.  Wed Jan 31, 2007 12:23 pm Reply with quote

Marvellous! As an ornithological pedant, though, I am bound to point out that the so-called 'fairy wrens' are not really wrens at all. Our Wren and its allies belong to the Troglodytidae family, whereas the Fairy Wrens belong to the Maluridae. They are minute birds, between 12 and 15cm in length, and confined more or less to Australia and New Guinea. They come in a truly blinding set of colours, such as the gregarious Orange Crowned Fairy Wren, Clytomyias insignis, whose nest is still undescribed by scientists, the White-Winged Fairy Wren, Malurus leucopteras, of inland Australia, which forms flocks of a dominant male and his partner, followed by subservient males and females, and the aptly named Splendid Fairy Wren, Malurus splendens. This latter has a few subspecies in differing colours, but only one male in each small flock is the splendid brilliant blue colour usually pictured in bird books. To confuse matters even further, the odd little family Acanthisittidae are sometimes referred to as 'New Zealand Wrens', though not hugely closely connected to either the true or fairy wrens. They've had a rough life, since they are weak fliers and songsters, and have fallen prey to introduced predators. The tiny Rifleman or Titipounamou, Acanthisitta chloris, has a name almost as long as its body, and is the most common - though still threatened - of the three living species. The Stephen Island Wren of this family went extinct, though was a contender for the smallest range of any bird living or dead, since it was only known from the tiny mile-square island in the Cook Strait from which it is named.

143296.  Tue Feb 06, 2007 3:55 pm Reply with quote

Oooh thank you King of Quok - I was inspired to do this research by your lovely post on the 'smallest birds' thread. Please do offer any other corrections you think necessary!

Is it enough to clarify that the fairy wren does not belong to the same family as the European and American wrens, or have I got to discard all that lovely stuff about adultery?

King of Quok
144186.  Thu Feb 08, 2007 9:43 am Reply with quote

Oh no, definitely keep in the adultery stuff! ;)

144203.  Thu Feb 08, 2007 10:12 am Reply with quote

Jenny wrote:
There was a long tradition in England and Ireland* of groups of boys hunting wrens on Boxing Day, singing songs and seeking money for doing so.

*and Wales.

The wren was hunted, killed, decorated and paraded about in a little house-shaped box like this:

A translation of the hunting song goes like this:

1. Let us go to the wood, said Dibyn to Dobyn,
Let us go to the wood, said Rhisiart to Robin,
Let us go to the wood, said John to the three,
Let us go to the wood, said every one.

2. What shall we do there ? etc.

3. Hunt the little wren, etc.

4. What shall we do with it ? etc.

5. Sell it for a shilling, etc.

6. (Not given.)

7. Spend it on ale, etc.

8. What if I got drunk ? etc.

9. (Not given.)

10. What if I died ? etc.

11. (Not given.)

12. Where shall we bury the feathers ? etc.

13. In a grave in a mound, etc.

Two of the foregoing proposals—to get drunk on ale bought by money received for the wren, and to bury the feathers in a mound—were regularly practised.

285313.  Tue Feb 26, 2008 2:07 pm Reply with quote

indeed an excellent article. not a surprise that a bird lover such as myself was fascinated. always cool to learn new things. those small birds rule ;)
humbled by thy knowledge,
Rake the Pigeon :D


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