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Always in season/ Mike Jacobs: Wrens work their way into folklore

The other day, I got a package from Babe Belzer of Cando, N.D. Inside was a book she had written. The book's heroine is a wren named Winifred who dreams about building a special nest.

You've probably guessed that "Winifred's Way" is a book for children.

Both Suezette and I loved it. I think children will love it, too.

The book arrived at an appropriate time. A pair of house wrens had nested in the backyard, so I could watch wrens while I enjoyed the book.

It's a heartwarming story. The book is beautifully illustrated by Gail Lyster. Every bird illustrated is recognizable as to species.

The book has more to teach about enterprise and cooperation than it does about wrens, but the wrens can't complain about that, and children will gain an important lesson from the book.

Winifred is not representative of wrens. She builds her nest on a tree branch.

In nature, wrens don't do this. They are birds of hedges and thickets and seldom venture very far above the ground.

They are cavity nesters, often moving into houses provided especially for them.

The wren's scientific name alludes to this habit. The bird is called "Troglodytes aedon."

A troglodyte is a cave dweller. Back when I was a cub reporter at the state Legislature, the press corps used to label especially obtuse members "troglodytes."

The wrens in my backyard filled the house I provided for them, but they didn't raise their family in it. This isn't too surprising. Male wrens often build foundations for several nests. It's part of the pair-bonding process. The female chooses the nest to use and finishes it off herself.

Apparently, the hen wren didn't like the house I offered. That might be because it is made of metal and could get a little hot in the sun.

The wren couple did choose a structure I had built, though, a bin where I dump weeds pulled from the garden—at least I think that is where the nest is. I see the birds going to and from the mulch bin. Perhaps the nest is at an intersection of the four-by-fours forming the frame.

This wouldn't be the most unusual nest site for a wren. I've had them nest in the opening of the crossbar of a clothesline. Once, a pair settled into an unused vent that was meant for a clothes drier.

All of this is possible because the wren is a small bird, smaller than the common sparrow. In color, it is drab, one might say extremely so. Overall, it is gray brown with very little marking of any kind.

Nevertheless, wrens are conspicuous birds.

This is due to the noise they make. It's not unpleasant, but it's not quite musical either. Instead, it's a kind of rapid chatter, easy to recognize but difficult to describe.

Wrens often sing from open perches, so they are easy to spot.

Once spotted, a wren can be identified by the way it holds its tail—at an acute angle, sometimes straight up. Coupled with the front loading of its body, this produces an appealing effect.

Other wrens

Three other species of wrens occur in the Red River Valley. Two are nesters, the marsh wren and the sedge wren. Both choose specific habitats, as their names suggest. Both are hard to find, since they prefer dense cover. They do pop up now and again, usually to sing, so finding either species isn't impossible. It's just challenging.

The fourth wren is a migrant here. This is the winter wren. Despite its name, I see it most often in spring. In fact, I associate it with flood season. When Suezette and I lived in the Riverside Park neighborhood, we used to see it while we were on dike duty early on April mornings.

A fifth wren species nests in western North Dakota. This is the rock wren, which is a characteristic species of the Badlands. It's larger than our local wrens.

These five are among about 60 species of wrens. All are New World species. Only one, the winter wren, occurs in Eurasia and Africa.

That wren has crept into European folklore. In Ireland and Britain, it is acclaimed "the king of all birds" because it proved it could fly higher than any other species, supposedly by hiding itself in the feathers of an eagle and emerging to claim the title. The wren is a king in Germany, too. There it is known as "Zaunkoenig," which means "king of the fence."

Here's hoping that clever, appealing Winifred the Wren enters our own folklore.