The song was amazing. Clear, beautiful and varied…and very, very loud. I stopped what I was doing to stand and listen. I know that particular song well, though its singer is elusive. Not because wrens are particularly shy, but because they are so tiny.
Less than four inches long and weighing no more than a third of an ounce, their voices, weight for weight, are ten times louder than that of a rooster and their song is incredibly complex. Wrens are seldom seen, even though they are one of the commonest British breeding birds, simply because of their size and behaviour… but they certainly make themselves heard.
This little one is probably a male and has a particularly rich song. They vary… some sing better than others, but this one is a virtuoso. I scanned the trees, with little hope of pin-pointing the singer as they are tiny enough to hide behind a leaf and well enough camouflaged to disappear against bark. They are easily recognised because of the short, upturned tail, but so hard to see! But there he was, proudly perched on the very top of the tree, singing his little heart out and vibrating with song. I grabbed the camera.
I am always amazed by these little birds. They play such a huge role in our folklore, yet they are so small. The Druids held them as sacred and the Queen of the Fae herself is said to shape-shift into the form of a wren in some of the old tales. While they are certainly fairy-like creatures, the wren is also King of the Birds, having won the crown from Golden Eagle. And then there is the Hunting of the Wren which takes you even deeper into folklore and mythology…
So important to the folklore of these isles is the wren that he used to feature on our smallest coin. Farthings were also tiny and a wren weighs about the same as three of these small coins. Before decimalisation changed our currency in 1971, we used a system of pounds, shillings and pence, confusingly written £-s-d or LSD…and working with it was as potentially mind-blowing as its psychedelic namesake. The ‘L’ came from the Latin libra, as a pound was originally that weight in silver. The ‘s’ was for shilling, which came from the Old English word for ‘to divide’ as coins were often cut, while the ‘d’ originated with the Roman denarius, a small coin.
There were twenty shillings in a pound, twelve pennies in a shilling and four farthings in a penny. It made learning basic mathematics interesting when everything else was added, multiplied or subtracted in tens, but money required the same process with a twelve-fold approach. Just to complicate matters, we also had thrupenny bits, florins, half crowns and sixpences too… and just when you’d mastered that, you realised that people were still pricing things in guineas (twenty-one shillings).
The farthing, from ‘fourthing’, was legal tender until 1960, though the last coins were struck four years earlier. As a very small girl I would still find the odd farthing in loose change. I distinctly remember my mother telling me about the wren on the coin one day as I dipped a stick of ‘spanish’ in a bag of kayli. We were on the way back from the little sweet shop, walking past Yates’s Mill, when she erroneously told me it was the smallest british bird. It was probably the first bird I learned to name and the first time I can actively remember my mother being less than infallibly omniscient. Even so, there was something magical about its image turning up in your hand.
The little guy on top of tree just kept on singing. My son’s garden has a lot of trees and bushes around it and there is always birdsong, even in winter. It occurred to me that I have been hearing this wren every day now for months. Whether it was the invitation of a little warm sunshine that tempted me to linger outside for longer than usual, or the bird’s determination to be heard, I don’t know…something made me take far more notice today.
It occurred to me too that without this one bird’s song, my days would have been poorer, yet I had not consciously realised how much he was contributing to the beauty of time and place. Just as the lack of a single, tiny farthing would change a whole £1 into a mere 19/11¾ – then the absence of this one little bird would have left the day less than whole.
It is the smallest of things that make a difference sometimes. We do not have to see them, we do not always realise that they are there… but we notice when they are not, even though we do not know what it is we are missing. We take such a lot for granted, so many small gestures that pass almost unnoticed as habit, without the many such small and seemingly insignificant gifts each day can bring, the world would be a poorer place.