An edited extract from the ‘November’ chapter of Stephen Moss’s ‘The Wren: A Biography’, published by Square Peg and out now.
Thomas Hood, the nineteenth-century poet and humourist, got it pretty well right when he wrote this short, sharp verse about the year’s penultimate month:
No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –
To most naturalists, November is the low point of the year. Summer is so far behind us as to be merely a distant memory; but spring is still several months ahead. And before then, we must suffer the slow, steady decline of daylight leading up to the winter solstice towards the dying days of the year.
For small birds such as the wren, November can be a tricky month, too. By now, any birds that were going to move a few miles down the road – or perhaps further – have already done so, and virtually all wrens are now living in the place where they will spend the whole of the winter.
At this time of year, only the robin sings regularly, though wrens do occasionally burst into song, as if rehearsing for the breeding season to come. But they will only get that far if they are able to find enough food to survive the winter; and with both food resources, and the time available to feed, now limited, that can be very tricky.
Like many small birds, wrens change their behaviour considerably as winter begins to bite. They rarely join forces with other species, in the manner of tits, goldcrests and treecreepers, which form loose feeding flocks in which every bird helps the others by calling continuously as they travel through the forest canopy. Unlike these species, which are just as fiercely territorial during the breeding season, wrens do not really do ‘sociability’.
Yet as Dominic Couzens points out in The Secret Lives of Garden Birds:
Even highly-strung wrens gather in small spaces to sleep alongside their congeners. . . It is not their normal practice; they much prefer to roost alone. But in fear of their lives wrens huddle together, sometimes in several layers in a confined space, with each bird facing inward.
It must take a lot for such a solitary, independent bird as a wren to roost communally like this. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Yet as soon as they finish roosting together they pursue their individual lives once again, vigorously defending their territory during daylight hours, before coming together with their rivals each evening.
The weather – and its effects on the availability of food – is also clearly a major influence on the life expectancy of wrens, and probably accounts for the majority of those ringing recoveries where the cause of death is unknown.
At the first sign of a cold spell, wrens in and around gardens often become easier to see, because they take advantage of our homes and outbuildings, as this observation from Thomas Bewick, writing at the very end of the eighteenth century, shows:
This active little bird . . . braves our severest winters. . . During that season it approaches near the dwellings of man, and takes shelter in the roofs of houses, barns and in hay-stacks; it sings till late in the evening, and not unfrequently during a fall of snow.
But what of wrens living and breeding elsewhere, in the wider countryside? A 1995 study of wrens living in one Nottinghamshire wood, car- ried out over two decades, revealed that following the two harsh winters of 1978/79 and 1985/86, ‘all or almost all birds which had previously bred in the wood probably died.’ It seemed that snowy winters are worse for wrens than other, very cold ones, with little or no snow: which makes sense, given that wrens usually feed on or near the ground, so if snow covers up their food they are more likely to starve.
I do wonder why – since cold, snowy weather so reduces their chances of survival – wrens don’t just follow the example of species such as the lapwing, fieldfare and redwing. All of these birds regularly flee ahead of the arrival of cold weather, often heading south and west, or even crossing over to France, to avoid it.
Yet it appears that, even in very bad winters, most wrens prefer to take their chances on their own, familiar territory, where they know how to find food, rather than heading off into the unknown. Put simply, it pays to stay put rather than flee.