Yesterday I witnessed at very close quarters the death of a wild creature that I had come to know well. He was a fiery little cock Wren whose territory included our garden. Although he only weighed the same as a 20p piece but he possessed a huge personality. Anne and I came to know him well and witness many of the dramas of his life through the winter spring and summer until yesterday when he was killed by a male Sparrow Hawk in our garden.
Last autumn I put two bat boxes up in a big Ash tree on the edge of the garden. As the winter days began to close in I noticed that a male Wren was roosting in them. At last light he would sneak quietly up to the tree and then squeeze up into the box through the slit in the bottom. During winter storms I would sometimes lie in bed listening to the wind and rain battering against the window and picture that little Wren nestled dry and protected in the bat box.
We watched him build his first nest of the year in the Ivy clad cliff just outside our kitchen window flying tirelessly back and forth countless times carrying moss and grassy stalks. Then we watched him trying to attract a female, filling the garden and our kitchen with his song. When a beautiful little female turned up he went into overdrive increasing the volume of his song and opening his wings wide to impress her. It worked and she began to carry fine fluffy seed heads and feathers into his nest to make the final lining before laying her clutch of eggs there.
We never saw the chicks from that nest although the eggs definitely hatched because both parents carried food to it for over a week. Maybe that nest failed or maybe we were away on the couple of days when the chicks actually left the nest, we will never know.
The pair built another nest someway south on the same cliff. We never found exactly where it was because it was not in our garden. We had begun feeding the birds small mealworms from a pot. Our courtyard filled up with Blackbirds, Dunnock, Great Tit, Blue Tit, House Sparrows, Robin and of course our pair of Wrens. They all had hungry chicks in the nest so the courtyard was a flutter from dawn to dusk. Although the smallest visitors our Wrens had by far the strongest presence. The cock Wren was a very noisy bird, filling the garden with his beautiful song. I am always amazed at the sheer volume of song that is generated and broadcast from a Wrens tiny body. He might only weigh the same as a 20p piece but in terms of decibels he was the biggest bird around. Some research has found that ounce for ounce a Wren’s song is 10 times louder than a cockerel’s crow.
He built another nest and the pair went for a second breeding attempt. He was everywhere singing at the top of his voice. He seemed to be repaying us for keeping him supplied with mealworms by converting their energy into song. If the mealworm pot emptied the cock Wren would sit on the open kitchen door peering in, singing and scolding at us, it was deafening inside a room. If we didn’t take the hint he would fly into the kitchen to get more for himself. He was so inquisitive and would search around through the pile of boots on the floor or go into our cupboards looking for goodies like spiders. We both felt the privilege of sharing our house with him. He wasn’t alone in this and one morning we had 3 species (Blue Tit, Blackbird and Wren) in at the same time raiding the mealworm container just inside the door.
Then one morning I heard the high contact calls of juvenile Wrens coming from the cliff top bushes. The second brood had fledged and were out and about. Now the normally noisy cock went into overdrive. He escorted the two chicks everywhere, always in sight of them but not to close, unless of course he was taking an item of food to feed them. What puzzled me is that he kept up a constant rattling chatter of calls which couldn’t fail to draw attention to him. He also seemed to me to be perching in more open and visible places than he had before. Wrens are usually rather skulking and stick to cover so this new behaviour was puzzling as it made him very visible and must have increased his vulnerability to predators. The female wren was an attentive parent but remained her usual quiet unassuming self.
I could tell who was who because the two chicks are a little darker and smoother looking than their parents. Both chicks stayed deep in cover for the first couple of days but became more confidant and visible as they got older. The family were our constant companions because they loved the mealworms we put just outside the kitchen window.
Yesterday afternoon I went up into the garden and as usual could hear our cock Wren churring and chattering. He was sitting in the top of a buddleia bush in his usual confidant way. My path took me past where he sat perched jauntily on a vertical twig. I was only about 4 meters away from him when he left his perch and flew down towards a blackberry thicket.
What happened next is etched on my memory in slow motion. From out of nowhere a larger much faster shape appeared and crashed into the thicket in pursuit of the Wren. A moments thrashing around in the brambles and a male Sparrowhawk emerged with our cock Wren held tightly in its feet. He flew past me no more than 3 meters away and as he passed I could clearly see our little Wren hanging below him. He was still alive, his head hung down and his beak was wide open. That is the image which sticks so vividly with me. I shouted “You Bastard” as he passed, which was a pretty pathetic thing for a lifelong naturalist to do.
The garden seems very empty and quiet now he’s gone. It probably sounds ridiculous thing to say but that tiny bird filled the garden with his restless energy, beautiful song and huge personality. We had come to know him as an individual and shared many of the dramas of that little guy’s life through the cold wet winter, this year’s successful breeding season and his sudden death. I am not ashamed to say that I miss.
His mate and their two young chicks are still coming to feed from the mealworm pot just outside our back door. It feels good to be able to help them.