Winter’s Wrens

When I walked around and across Dartmoor some years ago, I heard wrens every day, often more than once. Yet I rarely saw one. These small, subtle (at least to the eye!) creatures, one of the most common bird species in England, are awfully good at keeping to close to the earth.

Their name comes from the Old English wraenna. There’s one wren in the UK, good old Troglodytes troglodytes, while here in the U.S. we have ten species in the Tryglodytidae family. (A Troglodyte, you’ll remember, is a cave-dweller, a homage to the ur-wren’s skulking habits.)

One of our wrens is the Winter Wrens, pictured in this post. They used to be lumped in with Troglodytes troglodytes, but the species was split a decade ago. Our Winter Wrens are now classified as Troglodytes hiemalis.

Today, St. Stephen’s Day, used to be the day for good Christians to kill wrens in Britain and Ireland. Hard to imagine… but then I’m not keen on theology.

One theory holds that these murderous rampages happened because Christian missionaries to the British Isles were upset that the locals admired and respected these little birds. For the native “pagans” it was extremely unlucky to kill wrens. They were the king birds, the hedge kings, the little kings, the king of the birds. This paradoxical “king” appellation comes from the story that one of the little smart-alecks rode up to great heights by tucking himself into an eagle’s feathers, then popping out to fly even higher: look at me, I’m the king! A trickster figure.

Anyway, this was all too much for the missionaries, whose blood-thirsty god strangely didn’t look well upon all His supposed creations. The missionaries’ mission of cultural extermination merged with their this-world loathing to foster a scapegoating of the poor wrens.

Another folkloric reason for wren-killing, at least in Ireland: the birds were said have once alerted Vikings to a counter-attack by tapping on a drum as they ate the bread on it. Wrens were thus labeled traitors, even though all they were doing was eating… and killed on St. Stephen’s Day up until “about 70 years ago,” says this 2015 article.

St. Stephen’s Wren Day in Dingle, Ireland, is still a thing, but seems to have morphed into fife-and-drum ritual rather than actual killing. This analysis delves into the killing/burial of the wren as a fertility rite/debt to nature combo, because really, there’s no reason to blame just Christianity.

The tradition made it to the New World, by the way, being documentated in Newfoundland. I wrote about this more formally at JSTOR Daily.

Make it a new tradition. Look for wrens today and thank them for putting up with us.

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