Monday, 25 December 2017

Irish Garden Birds - The Wren, the Wren, the king of all birds!

It's the 4th week of the Irish Garden Bird Survey, and (arguably...) more importantly it's Christmas Day! We'd like to wish all of our members, followers and garden bird surveyors a very happy Christmas. With a few days off work, it's a great time to go for a walk or visit your local wetland to see what birds are around. 

Be sure to talk to your family and friends about the birds visiting your garden this week too - a lot of people notice the birds visiting their garden, but don't know their names or much about them, but that's where you can help! You might even start them on the track to taking part in next year's garden bird survey! 

Last week we had the Robin, and given the St. Stephen's Day tradition we had to give this week to the Wren! 
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Species Profile: Wren

As Gaeilge: 'DreolĂ­n' 

Irish Garden Bird Survey Ranking 2016/17: 9th place

Conservation status: Green-listed in Ireland, with around 6.2 million individuals here in the breeding season. 

Wren. Photo by J. Fox

'Wren Day' - Did You know?

  • 'Wren Day' is celebrated on St. Stephen's Day in Ireland. The origin of the day isn't fully clear, but there is a lot of mythology associated with the Wren and Wren Day.

  • In Celtic Mythology, the Wren was a symbol of the past year, so the day may be linked to the passing of the previous year and the beginning of the new one. The Robin is usually associated with the new year, and both Robins and Wrens are quite vocal in winter months.
  • There is also a story of the Wren betraying Irish soldiers against Norse Invaders around the 8th/9th/10th century - as the Irish snuck up on their sleeping enemies, a Wren beat its wings (or pecked at breadcrumbs) on a drum and woke the Viking invaders, leading to the defeat of the Irishmen. There is also a story of a chattering Wren betraying the christian martyr St. Stephen to his enemies.
  • There is the story too of the Wren being king of the birds! According to legend, the birds held a parliament and agreed that whichever one flew highest would rule over all of the other birds. The Eagle soared higher than all the rest, until it began to get tired, when suddenly a tiny Wren emerged from its feathers and fluttered up to victory! 
  • On St. Stephen's Day, a Wren was captured and tied to the Wrenboy leader's staff or put in a cage. The Wrenboys would wear masks and be dressed in colourful clothing and straw suits - they were also known as 'mummers' or 'strawboys. They would bring the Wren from house to house, playing musical instruments and singing a song in return for money.
  • The tradition is a lot less widespread than it use to be, though is still carried out in many parts of the country. The town of Dingle in county Kerry still holds a famous festival and parade every St. Stephen's Day.
  • The English language version of the song goes as follows:
The Wren, the Wren, the king of all birds,

St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give us a treat.
As I was going to Killenaule,
I met a wren upon the wall.
Up with me wattle and knocked him down,
And brought him in to Carrick Town.
Drooolin, Droolin, where’s your nest?
Tis in the bush that I love best
In the tree, the holly tree,
Where all the boys do follow me.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren.
I followed the wren three miles or more,
Three miles or more three miles or more.
I followed the wren three miles or more,
At six o’clock in the morning.
I have a little box under me arm,
Under me arm under me arm.
I have a little box under me arm,
A penny or tuppence would do it no harm.
Mrs. Clancy’s a very good woman,
a very good woman, a very good woman,
Mrs. Clancy’s a very good woman,
She give us a penny to bury the wren.

Singing Wren. Photo by M. Finn.

Some more Wren facts:

  • Wrens are the second-smallest bird in Ireland, mere millimeters larger than the Goldcrest!
  • In winter, they sometimes roost communally to preserve heat and fat loss - more than 50 Wrens have been found spending the night together in a nestbox!
  • Their family name is "Troglyodytidae' which means 'cave dweller' - they're usually seen lurking in the darker, sheltered parts of hedgerows etc. and roost at night in dark holes and cavities. They nest in 'cave-like' places too - holes in trees, cracks in walls etc.
  • The male Wren builds several nests (often 6 or 7), called "cock nests", and the female chooses one to use. This is all the more impressive when you consider that they're highly polygamous - one male can have several females with an active nest in his territory.
Two Wrens roosting together at night. Photo by T. Darby



How long do they live?

As followers of the blog will now know, a lot of our garden birds don't actually live that long! The typical lifespan for a Wren is 2 years, and the oldest one on record in Ireland and Britain was 7 years and 3 months old.


What do they feed on? 

The natural food for Wrens is tiny insects - that's why they have that small, pointed bill. Though not a common sight on feeders, they will feed on mealworms or tiny pieces of peanuts or sunflower hearts - usually those left over or spilled onto the ground by other birds.


Wren with insect prey. Photo by C. Clarke



Irish Garden Bird Survey Trends:


Last year Wrens ranked 9th in the list of Irish garden birds - in 82.3% of gardens. They're a species that usually makes it into the top 10 every year, and are possibly in more gardens than we realise but just go unrecorded because of their secretive nature! In some of the recent cold winters they dropped down to 15th place in the rankings, with high mortality of this tiny bird! 

They're common in gardens throughout the full 13 weeks of the garden bird survey (i.e. Dec-Feb), with a slight increase in records in the first few and last couple of weeks.



This graph shows the average number of Wrens per garden during each year of the Irish garden bird survey since 1994/95 – there are some ups and downs over the years, which can often be explained by cold winters impacting numbers. 



Movements and Migration:

Ringing Recoveries of Wren, via the BTO.


The map on the right shows where Wrens in Ireland and the UK have been found in Europe - you'll notice there are very few dots! that's because Wrens are largely sedentary - they're a tiny bird, with very small wings and they weigh around 10g - so they really aren't built for any sort of long-distance flight! 


Those in northern European countries like Finland do have to migrate as they couldn't survive the cold winters, so they fly by night in autumn to central Europe and return in early summer.

How can I help Wrens?


It's a really good time of year to put out nestboxes, well in advance of the breeding season, so birds have plenty of time to find them and check them out. Some birds, like Wrens, will also use nestboxes to roost in at night during the winter months.

Wrens will use a variety of nestboxes, but the one most likely to attract them is the one in the picture here - diamond shaped with a small opening at the top. It may also be used by Robins. It should be put somewhere sheltered by vegetation (e.g. ivy or brambles etc.) - remember these birds are the 'cave-dwellers'!


You can find these nestboxes on our shop website at this link.

Alternatively, you can find designs to build your own nestbox on the BirdWatch Ireland website here.

Wren. Photo by S. Connolly


When it comes to feeding Wrens, keep in mind two things: Wrens have small, fine bills and they hang around the more sheltered parts of the garden.

Putting some finely grated cheese near the bottom of a hedge can be a good way to attract them, or leaving out mealworms in a similar area. I you can chop up peanuts or sunflower hearts into very small pieces, this will be appreciated by the Wrens too! 

Wren. Photo by C. Timmons


I hope you've learned something new about Wrens through this species profile - if there's a species you'd like us to cover later in the winter please let us know on facebook or twitter!


And if you're not taking part already, consider taking part in our Garden Bird Survey this winter - and spread the word to friends and family - the more the merrier! If you start this week, you can still send us 10 weeks worth of counts which will be hugely useful in letting us know how Irish garden birds are faring this winter! 

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