The King of All Birds

By: Mike

I mentioned in a recent post that in Ireland, the Wren is known as the King of All Birds. With Christmas rapidly approaching, I feel that the story about the wren deserves telling.

Over this side of the pond, December 26th is known as ‘Boxing Day’ but in Ireland it is still known (and still used by yours truly) as Saint Stephen’s Day – a day on which the little Wren takes pride of place.

The common brown wren is one of the tiniest birds in the British Isles. (The crested wren is even smaller and rarer). It has a strange way of life. In spring, the male will make numerous nests, usually in ivy on the side of an old tree but sometimes in ivy on walls. He then goes ‘on the pull’. As soon as he finds a female he takes her to one of his many mossy, circular nests with a hole in the side and invites her in. If she likes it, they mate and he, like some men, clears off looking for another female. The nest can contain up to twelve tiny white eggs. The male plays no further role in the feeding or care of the young. The hen may in fact have up to three broods each year. The sad part is that as many as 95% of wrens die during a very severe winter.

It is claimed that the wren’s name comes from the Druid’s who revered the little bird. They claimed that the wren was sacred to their bull god Taranis and was under his protection. It is further claimed that its nest is always protected by The Thunderer – Taranis and that whoever steals wren’s eggs will have their home struck by lightning. Not only that, but their hands will shrivel up……………………..

There are many legends about the wren in Irish folklore. The one that holds most sway for me is the time when an Irish army was sneaking up on a band of sleeping Vikings. A wren began to eat some crumbs from a battle drum of the Vikings and his rat, tat, tat from his pecking awoke the drummer boy who sounded the attack. The Irish soldiers were badly defeated.

The relevance with St. Stephen is said to have come about when he was hiding from his enemies and the wren began singing close to the hiding place. He was captured and stoned to death.

Throughout Ireland in ancient times, on St. Stephen’s Day, boys dressed up in fancy clothes, but mainly women’s clothing, would ‘stone’ a wren and tie the dead body to a highly decorated holly bush or small pine tree. They would then parade it through the streets in revenge for the death of St. Stephen.

The festivities died out in the mid 1900’s but apparently it has been resurrected and nowadays in many cities and towns throughout Ireland, the Wrenboys as they are known, but it now includes girls, use a dummy wren and have large parades with plenty of singing and dancing, not to mention drinking. Any money collected, unlike in the olden days, is given to charity.

Here are two of the many variations to the song they sing:

“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day, he was caught in the furze;
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Pray give us a penny to bury the wran”.

OR

The wren, the wren, king of all birds,
Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his family is great,
I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat.
My box would speak, if it had but a tongue,
And two or three shillings, would do it no wrong,
Sing holly, sing ivy – sing ivy, sing holly,
A drop just to drink, it would drown melancholy.
And if you draw it of the best,
I hope in heaven your soul will rest;
But if you draw it of the small,
It won’t agree with these wrenboys at all.

———–

And this is my version of how he was Crowned…………..

The Wren, the Wren, King of All Birds

The Crested Wren, our smallest bird,
An old man told me, and it might seem absurd,
That it became the King of All Birds,
And this is how. These are his words.

Soon after God created them,
A meeting was called by a scrawny old hen,
To elect as King, one of their kind,
No rules were set, or yet defined.

Some of the fowl of smaller wing,
Knew that they would not be king,
When a decision by the majority,
That flight was what the test would be.

‘’Distance?’ asked the Albatross,
‘No, no, no’ cried the Owl, the boss,
‘Height – then we will have to fly,
High, high, high, into the sky’.

The hen jumped off a fallen tree,
It’ll never do, it was plain to see,
That her leap of about four feet,
Would not the record ever beat.

The goose took up the challenge, bold,
Tried to take off, but rolled and rolled,
Until she splashed down in the lake,
The old hen cackled ‘For Heaven’s sake’.

The blackbird and the mistle thrush,
Flew off and with a hurried rush,
They reached quite high, but would not win,
For the Eagle watched with a sly grin.

When most had tried their level best,
To get much higher than the rest,
The swallow on its screaming wing,
Was first so far: he might be King.

It was then that the Eagle made his bid,
But did not notice where the shrewd Wren hid,
And as he soared among the clouds,
Was watched from below by the feathered crowds.

The Eagle reached a mighty height,
Then screamed out loud with wild delight,
‘I am the King, it’s plain to see,
No one on earth will outdo me’.

Then from his feathers, flew the Wren,
And climbed twelve feet and only then,
‘You are beaten Eagle’ he was heard to sing,
Came back to Earth, and was crowned King.

The moral of this story then:
The Great Bald Eagle, or scrawny old Hen,
Is no better than the Wren or Tit,
It’s not your size – it’s what you do with it.