For the Birds Radio Program: Winter Wren

Original Air Date: Aug. 19, 1992

What’s the true scoop on Jenny Wren? (I THINK this is a recasting of one I produced on 1986-08-04. That’s the script I modified for this.)

Audio missing


For being one of the tiniest, drabbest, of all songbirds, the Winter Wren has one of the most beautiful of all songs. It’s been described by one ornithologist as a long, silver-threaded song. It’s a sound that only the call of the loon rivals for defining the wild beauty of the North country.

(Recording of the Winter Wren)

The Winter Wren returns to the Northland in April, and spends the summer in deep, dark, spruce forests, fragrant with decay, where standing trees are moss-covered and the spongy ground is littered with soft, rotting wood. Its diet is virtually 100% insect, although some ornithologists have seen it eating cedar berries, too. It is hard to see—tiny, brown, and secretive—and so its habits are not well known. Even its scientific name reflects its dark, secretive nature—Troglodytes troglodytes—a troglodyte is a reclusive cave dweller.

The Winter Wren looks a lot like our common House Wren. It’s a tiny brown bird with barring across its underside, a slender, slightly curved bill, and a habit of cocking its tail straight up. But the Winter Wren is almost a full inch shorter than the House Wren—and most of the difference is in the length of the tail. The Winter Wren’s is just a tiny stump. It’s named the Winter Wren because many individuals remain in the northern United States, and even in Canada, for the whole winter—although if the weather is severe, many of these birds die.

Scientists believe that the wren family originated in the New World. The Winter Wren is the only species in the whole family found outside the Americas—long ago it made its way from Alaska, through Siberia, to Europe, and from there to Northern Africa. Because it’s the only wren found in Europe, there it’s simply called the wren. Most folk tales and poems about Jenny Wren are about this species.

In spite of its secretiveness, the Winter Wren seems to have at least let William Shakespeare in on its most intimate moments. He had King Lear say, “Die for adultery? No. The wren goes to ‘t.” Although adultery is meaningless in the world of birds, wrens can hardly be considered monogamous. They breed two or even three times a season, often swapping mates while one batch of babies are still unfledged. This way a female can produce as many as fifteen young a year, which is important with a bird as fragile as this one—the oldest Winter Wren on record, a banded one from Holland, survived only five years, nine months. Fortunately for us, the Winter Wren manages to get a lot of singing into its brief life.

(Recording of a Winter Wren)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”