For the Birds Radio Program: Win Vader's Winter Wren Story
When King Lear says, “Die for adultery? No! The wren goes to’t,” he was talking about the bird we know as the Winter Wren.Laura’s friend Wim Vader recounts a legend about them in Norway.
“Die for adultery? No! The wren goes to it!” Back in the mythical days of King Lear, as Gloucester wrestled with the same demons as, say, a modem American president, Shakespeare put the morality issue in perspective by considering one of the most endearing birds, the Winter Wren. The wren family is strictly American except this hardiest of all–the only one of its family to reach as far north as Alaska. Long, long ago some intrepid or very lost Winter Wrens crossed the Bering Strait into Siberia, like reverse colonists emigrating from the New World to the Old, and like human colonists who crossed the Atlantic, Winter Wrens increased and multiplied on their new continent, spreading across Asia into Europe and the British Isles. Since this is the only wren found over there, British ornithologists simply call it the Wren.
In the Netherlands, the Winter Wren is called “Winterkoning,” which means the winter king. Ornithologist Wim Vader, of the Tromso Museum in Norway, explains the Dutch story that inspired this name in a recent national online Birdchat posting. He writes:
The origin [of the name winterkoning] lies in the same legend that has resulted in names like “kinglet,” (or in Norwegian, Fuglekonge, or bird king). I feel, however, that the story does make much more sense with the Winter Wren as a protagonist, precisely because of its combative personality. The story goes as follows: the birds decided to choose a king. As always in such circumstances, the criteria by which the choice should be made caused trouble: the guillemot proposed the deepest diver as king, the flamingo the longest neck. But the eagle, the strongest of them all, laid down the law: ‘We choose the bird as king who can fly the highest, or else… ‘
So all the birds, except the poor penguins and ostriches, flew up. And soon it became clear that the eagle had made a prudent choice of criterion-one bird after another had to give up, until finally only the eagle soared above all the others. Even eagles need to descend after a while, however. And at that exact moment the little Winter Wren came out of the back feathers where he had been hiding all the time, flew a little bit higher still, and crowed with typical wren exuberance: ‘I am the king, I am the king of all the birds!’
This was clearly cheating, though, and all the other birds ganged up and ostracized the wren, so that it only feels safe in the worst tangles and brush-piles, where the others can’t get at it. In winter, though, when many of the other birds have left the area, it regularly comes forth, sticks up its head and tail and trills, “I am the king, I am the king of all the birds!” And that is why this bird in Dutch is called winterkoning, the winter king.”
Dr. Vader’s charming retelling of the familiar myth of birds riding on the backs of eagles is something real birds never do. But real Winter Wren exuberance does come across in their mating habits, as alluded to by Shakespeare. Wren pairs raise their first batch of nestlings together, but as the babies fledge from the nest, dad stays with them while mom runs off to mate with a new male and start a whole new family. After the original fledglings go their separate ways, dad mixes it up with a new female and starts yet another new family. All in all this efficient system maximizes the number of baby wrens on the planet, be they the Dutch kings of all the birds, Shakespearean adulterers, or our own dear songsters of the north woods, weaving their silver-threaded songs like the most primal, and lovely, of old storytellers.