For the Birds Radio Program: Winter Wren

Original Air Date: April 11, 2003 Rerun Dates: May 14, 2004

A troglodyte can lift Laura’s spirits like nothing else.

Audio missing


As spring revs into second gear, our senses rev up, too. Our eyes detect the little buds swelling on trees and shrubs, robins taking their first tentative steps on front lawns, and the tiny, rippling streams as puddles flow into storm sewers. Our skin feels the warmer, more intense rays of the sun, the occasional balmy breeze, the occasional pelting of ice and rain. On the best days, our nose detects the sweet smells of earthworms, mud, and blossoms. Something deep within us detects the increasing day length, filling us with renewed hope. Perhaps the reason Seasonal Affect Disorder dissipates in spring is because our senses are so busy processing all these beautiful intimations of hope that they let despair slip away like a small child letting go of a helium balloon.

The sensory organs that go into overdrive are our ears. Before it’s even light out, robins are in full song, their rich caroling heard everywhere from downtown cities to wilderness. Chickadees are singing their pure “Hey, sweetie!” notes. Grackles are cackling, woodpeckers drumming, and cardinals are whistling away.

But to hear the loveliest song of all, we must go to the north woods—mixed hardwood and conifer is best. We listen to the White-throated Sparrows singing of Old Sam Peabody, the first Hermit Thrush, a snipe winnowing overhead.

And suddenly, there it is—a lovely, silver-threaded song tinkling with so many notes we can’t count or process even half of them, floating through the treetops. And hearing this, the song of the Winter Wren, I feel my heart swell and my hopes rise. Something so buoyant about the Winter Wren’s song is literally, physically uplifting—I feel taller, and even the corners of my mouth are drawn up. I think it would be impossible to frown during a winter wren’s arias. I may be alone in the middle of a forest, but I can’t help but beam my hugest smiles just to hear it.

The Winter Wren is the hardiest of all wren species. This is strictly a New World family, with 79 species spanning from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska. But the tiny Winter Wren is the hardiest of all—so much so that long, long ago it even crossed the Bering Strait to Siberia, and colonized Asia and Europe. When an Englishman speaks of “the wren,” he’s talking about our Winter Wren. Gloucester, in King Lear, was speaking of the winter wren when he said, “Die for adultery? No! The wren goes to’t.”

Adultery? Wrens are so tiny, facing so many dangers as they negotiate their world, that they have to maximize the number of babies they raise. What simpler way than, after one batch of babies fledges, while they are still dependent, for dad to take over their care as mom moves on to find another mate and lay another clutch of eggs. Then, as soon as the first batch of babies fledge, dad can find a new mate, too, raising potential egg production significantly.

Ornithologists have an easier time studying winter wrens in England, where they nest in garden bird houses, than they do here in America, where they are more secretive, moving in and out of dark shadows in the forest as if to affirm the reason their family is called Troglodytidae. And to emphasize the point, the winter wren’s scientific name is Troglodytes troglodytes. My American Heritage Dictionary defines a troglodyte as:

A member of a fabulous or prehistoric race of people that lived in caves, dens, or holes, a person considered to be reclusive, reactionary, out of date, or brutish. An anthropoid ape, such as a gorilla or chimpanzee, or an animal that lives underground, as an ant or a worm.

Somehow the only part of that that fits the Winter Wren is the part about being reclusive and living in caves. This tiny sprite, weighing barely a fifth of an ounce, may flit in and out of dark shadows and corners, but it’s hardly brutish or wormy. And this endearing little sprite may be shy, but its song filling the north woods during mid- and late-spring is the loveliest song of all.

You can learn to identify wrens and hear the song of the winter wren at this website: