W FOR WRENS

Just rediscovered a nice piece by Adam Nicolson in Telegraph 4.12.04, and have helped myself to a generous extract, under the banner of fair review, with apologies and thanks to the man who wrote it. Do please look up the full article …

Nicolson told how fighting wrens, completely wrapped up in their wren-ness, were completely oblivious to the potentially dangerous giant seabirds all around them or the human who was watching.  The writer wondered whether we are any less species-centric …

“The strangest sight I have seen all year was during the summer, in an enormous seabird colony in the Hebrides. All round me, the puffins, razorbills and guillemots were hacking and growling at each other … the shags hissing and honking like demented witches.

“One thing television can never show you is the way in which these gatherings of wild animals assault all senses at once. Capability Brown did not design a shag colony; it is not a place of resolution.

“All around you there is nothing but intensity, competition, desperation and drive …

Amid the noise and the chaos, away from the looming aggression of a threatened shag mum, I saw something else. On a flattish rock a few feet away, oblivious to my presence and to the presence of half a million seabirds hawking out their existence around them, were three little wrens.

“Each occupied one corner of their tabletop rock, like wrestlers in a triangular tournament. Each stood there, with its chest puffed out and its tail cocked up. I am sure, at that moment, that all the wrens could see was each other, in ferocious and manly competition for the control, ownership and domination of this part of the world. The fact that they were nearly invisible within it could not have mattered less. Mutual rage filled their vision from one horizon to the other. A wren Hitler, Stalin and Churchill were facing each other, on a rock about 18in across.

“I sat there entranced as they stomped and strutted in their little parade ground. One would approach another, and the threatened wren would jump away.

“They pointed with their beaks, looked away, took a fencer’s step towards one of their opponents, and then withdrew. It was wren ballet, wren theatre, wren war.

“A big black-back gull cruised for a while across the top of the colony and all the puffins either crept back into their boulder holes or flapped off out to sea. Sea eagles, buzzards, great skuas: all were there, above them, leading their ferocious, enormous lives. The wrens didn’t notice.

“The three of them were living in a wren-shaped universe. Those other birds, so apparently dominant, simply did not exist, or only so marginally that they didn’t matter. No doubt the wrens looked at the puffins and thought: ‘What extraordinarily badly designed wrens those are! Who could ever have thought a wren could need a beak like that? Or those feet! Really!”

“The wrens were suffering, in other words, from the wren equivalent of anthropocentrism.

“There is a traditional song about hunting the wren, and the scene I was watching was a dramatisation of the line at the heart of that song: ‘Although he was little, his honour was great.’ That was the quality on show. Those three tiny puffed-up bodies, with their tails cocked so high, were, if they were anything, bursting with honour …

“There are more dreary ways of saying this … but none of them is as good as that line from the song. All three of them, their honour was great, and I loved them for it.”

**

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