Karl Meyer                                            December 6, 2007
Greenfield, MA

                             On making assumptions…

Never assume anything–particularly wrens.  I made that mistake recently and a wren got the jump on me.  It was a good lesson.  The weather was brooding and dreary.  The afternoon world was wrapped in dulling late-fall rain.  Then a wren barged in–spring-boarding off the window casement three feet from me.  Its scratchy wildness scuttled any thoughts of surrender to dreariness.  A world with wrens is magic.  I’ll never again assume to the contrary.

It’s not that I ever discount wrens.  In southern New England we’re never completely without them.  A few hardy winter wrens–secretive denizens of evergreen shadows, don’t retreat south from our winter chill.  And Carolina wrens, a species that jumped north to our latitude in the mid-1900s on global warming’s edge, are now widely dispersed through varied scrubby habitats.  They hold their turf in winter to the point where significant die-offs occur some years due to intense cold.  The other wren varieties we enjoy from this plucky, gravy-boat-shaped family—the house, sedge, and marsh wrens, all retreat south at winter’s approach.

But here–out of the bleak afternoon universe on the cusp of winter, comes the wren.  It’s a lightning bolt visit.  Quickness is the livelihood of wrens.  Just a flash: a head with a curving bill, a bright eye with arching white eyebrow, and the briefest flicker of a stubbed brown tail.  Then it bolts from view.  Wren!—unmistakably wren.  Quick, stubby, plucky, and warm brown—a Carolina wren!

You may not know this bird from sight, but likely somewhere you’ve heard–spring, summer, or fall, in the last decade.  In the size-to-volume range this wisp of feathers pumps out song like it has a bullhorn.  It’s a boldly sweet, “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea,” pause, “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea,” pause—“tea-kettle tea.”   And then again, over and over—until it’s through with that variation, and moves onto something quite similar but varying by a quarter note, and runs through that repertoire.  And then another barely perceptible change, and then another run of wren song.  It’s what wren’s do.

More Carolina wrens are making it through more Eastern state winters–further north and at higher elevations, as our climate warms.  That’s good news for the wrens, while we’ll have to do the math on what it means for humans.  In summer here you’ll now you hear “tea-kettle-tea” high in hilltowns, where it was never heard before.  So, even at winter’s approach it’s incumbent on all of us to prepare ourselves for wrens.  You just never know.

The actual prep work isn’t much really.  It amounts to un-cultivating the certain understanding that life can appear boring at times—routines can collect in a dulling sameness, leaving us vulnerable to the element of surprise.  And then, WHAM!—that wren hits your window.  To those not mentally prepared, this might assault our slowed senses as annoyance—there’s a leaf, a branch, a twig, some sparrow blundering onto the deck.  It is not.  It is magic come to visit—so be not fooled.

Why a wren you might ask—why here, why now??  Well because insects and spiders crawl around your porch steps and window casements—all are winter gifts to a Carolina wren.  And then, even in urban neighborhoods, there are likely a few choice berry and seed producing shrubs that can supplement a wren’s insect diet through a winter.  With enough scrubby shelter and available water, this half-ounce feather ball just might make it to spring, and a new round of tea-kettling in your neighborhood.

If that happens they’ll be two Carolina wrens looking to nest.  They stay together year-round and mate for life.  The males do the bulk of the tuneful singing, but they both work on the domed nest that’s wound like a beehive and is made from bark, grass, leaves, hair, and even plastic.  There will be an entrance at the side, and 3 – 7 eggs will be placed at its center.  It’ll make for a very melodious summer.

Meanwhile, if you’re out in the wilder, dense evergreen woods, you might listen for the intense little spit-stutter-scold of the tiny winter wren.   These guys are tiny, grayish-brown, secretive and amazingly quick.  They are usually not far from water and dense cover—which includes brush piles.  Don’t let them get the jump on you!

Curiously, the winter wren is the only wren species that we share with Europe, Asia, and Africa.  Same bird.  In Ireland there’s the medieval tradition of the Wren Boys.  On St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, groups of young boys go around and get the jump on a winter wren—known simply as “the wren.”  They kill the poor creature, tying it to a stick.  They then go around dressed-up, singing songs and begging money for the dead bird on a stick.  When there’s enough money for a party they give that wren a solemn burial, then drink themselves silly.  So, even if you’re a wren: never assume anything.