In my frugal wartime Christmases, I remember, the coins in our family Christmas pudding were farthings. Many of my readers probably don’t even know what a farthing was, I suppose. It was a tiny coin, worth a quarter of an old penny, and didn’t have much purchasing power even then. However, I loved farthings for, on the obverse side, was depicted a very characterful wren: presumably because it was commonly thought of as our smallest bird (actually that is a goldcrest). It’s certainly one most people would know: wrens are ubiqiuitous, able to thrive in virtually any environment and are, in many years, the UK’s most numerous species. And they have that amazing song – so loud you feel that the frail little singer might explode.
They figure in our folklore too, and in strangely contradictory ways. Traditionally the wren is called “the king of the birds” and it is deemed unlucky to harm or kill one. However, on Boxing Day there was the gruesome practice of Hunting the Wren when gangs of youths roamed the countryside catching and killing as many wrens as they could. These were then borne back to the village on a pole in triumph. Fortunately, this cruel practice has died out though in some parts of Ireland an effigy of a wren is still paraded on 26th December, the Feast of St. Stephen. Apparently, the story behind this was that a chattering wren betrayed Stephen as he was hiding from the mob that subsequently stoned him to death.
Now it is one of our most popular birds for its cheerful dumpy appearance and that cheeky cocked tail. Wrens are industrious too: the male constructs several nests – bulky affairs incorporating lots of grass and moss. He then invites his mate to choose one, which she then lines with feathers ready to receive the clutch of 5 or 6 brown-spotted eggs.
Hard winters reduce the population radically. When you are tiny, it’s hard to maintain body temperature especially on frosty nights. Wrens often roost communally and make good use of empty nest boxes. One observer counted 60 birds in one box: they took half an hour to enter and pack themselves in layers, and twenty minutes to exit in the morning. It must have been stifling but I guess a little claustrophobia is preferable to a chilly death!