• Jo Hanlon-Moores

Royalty on our doorstep

We’ve always shared our cottage with other animals: spiders, insects of various types, the Jackdaws in the chimney stack every spring, mice in the very old walls… I’ve often said that sometimes this home feels more like a tree than a building. I probably have hours of immersion in Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood, scaling the Faraway Tree, to blame for that but it’s not entirely a fantasy.

Alongside our usual neighbours, towards the end of last summer, we noticed that a new tenant was thinking of moving in.

Outside our front door is a covered area, an open porch, where we have a bench (and, at this time of year, enough wellies for a small army) and some plant pots. A few years ago I found some large sticks/small branches from a fallen tree and propped them up next to the door because they look nice and after all, this cottage is really a tree. The top of one of these branches is lodged behind the guttering and in front of a beam and it was here that we noticed that something (I prefer ‘someone’) was attempting to build a nest. Every day there’d be a pile of dead leaves on the floor while a pitiful few stuck around the building site.

Persistence pays off, and eventually a little nest appeared and stayed put. It was never used and we assumed it was just too close to us coming and going out of the front door. We didn’t have the heart to clear it away so it stayed - an empty Wren’s nest.

Every morning I sit on the aforementioned bench to meditate and get my mind in order for the day, and every morning a Wren flies over my shoulder, up on to the guttering near the nest, and watches. He looks for food among the old roof tiles, then flies down to a little ball of Box in the flower bed and hops around inside looking for more spiders and insects. Backwards and forwards, the same time every day, occasionally flying over to look at the nest but never going in.

A couple of weeks ago as I stepped outside with the dogs at dark o’clock, a tiny bird flashed over my shoulder from the nest. It happened again and again over subsequent days and close inspection revealed rather a lot of bird poo, tidily dropped over the edge of the nest. Someone had moved in!

What I’ve learned is that Wrens roost in places that will keep them warm - that may be a nesting box, or an old or unused nest. It’s unclear as to whether or not Wren’s ‘future proof’ by building winter roosts in spring/summer, but what we do know is that the male Wrens of southern England will, in the spring, build in several sites. These are checked over by the female who will choose one to be lined and used to raise a brood. It seems our winter lodger is using an unchosen nest.

It’s made of mostly leaves but you can also see bits of soft moss woven in. If location is everything then I can see that it would get a no from a female - for a start it’s surrounded by our dodgy, old cottage wiring. Not what I’d want outside my window.

There may be more than one Wren using it to keep warm during these winter nights - in 1969, in a Norfolk nesting box, a record 61 Wrens were found to be snuggling up of an evening! I think our little nest is more of a two man tent than a hotel.

A male Wren will fly in and out of a roost he’s built in his territory, calling to draw attention, and invite other birds in to share. As spring appears on the horizon, he’ll start chasing off the males and only allow in females, one or more of whom may end up being a breeding partner in the spring. If birds were to descend to reality tv, this would surely be a ratings winner.

In the north, where resources are fewer and the season is shorter, male Wrens build less nests. Sometimes just one. Meanwhile, down here in the south, they’re building several and then sometimes having broods with several females. I will leave you to draw your own parallels to human behaviour.

The Wren has done well in recent years thanks to milder winters, and we certainly have a good number in and around our garden (and front door). I love their power and voice that seems way out of proportion to their tiny bodies. According to an old folk tale from these islands, the Wren became King of all Birds when, in a competition to win the title by flying higher than all others, he sat on the back of an Eagle, winning on a clever technicality. This sums up their character for me: intelligent, observant, and ready to grasp an opportunity. I watch my morning companion as he watches me. He's unshaken - as long as I sit relatively still - hopping around within two feet of me.

I’ve always worried about little animals when it’s cold and wet, so it makes me happy to think of at least one tucked up warmly under this roof and I try to tiptoe past if it’s still dark in the morning. No one wants to be ‘That Neighbour’ after all.

  • [BTO Data shows that the Wren's current UK population estimate is the highest for any species and, on the latest figures, one in eight of our breeding birds is a Wren. They are highly susceptible to cold winters, but a warming climate may already have benefited the 'king of birds'.]

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© 2021  Jo Hanlon-Moores & Charlie Moores