Wild Neighbors: A Wren in the Room

By Joe Eaton
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 07:13:00 PM

I walked into my living room last Saturday morning and found a Bewick’s wren perched on the back of the armchair.  

I knew this bird, or at least its family. We’ve been hearing a wren sing in the vicinity of the house for about the last five years, and seeing it—wrens being furtive skulkers—on rare occasions. The song is loud and energetic, and I have a mental block about it; it always takes a while before I think “Oh, right, Bewick’s wren.”  

We don’t know if it’s been the same wren all along (according to AnAge, the Animal Ageing and Longevity Database, Bewick’s wrens may live to be eight years old, a surprising lifespan for such a small bird) or a succession of wrens handing down the territory from father to son. We don’t know if it has ever found a mate or raised a brood. We just know that it’s out there. 

Except now it was in here, watching me from the back of the chair. Ron, who usually deals with birds in the house, was unavailable. Every marriage has its division of labor. I take out the garbage; she takes out the wildlife. Most often she has dealt with Anna’s hummingbirds, which chase each other into the house and sometimes get trapped in the curtains. The one California towhee that found its way in also found its own way out, with the help of its mate who had been making contact calls outside the open bathroom window. But I was on my own with this one. 

Matt the cat, just as well, was also absent. If Matt catches birds, he’s extremely discreet about it. He does point them, though. We’ll be hearing this repeated “tick tick tick” noise, trying to figure out if the smoke detector needs a new battery, and Matt will be staring at the curtain where the hummingbird is. He’s also done that with rodents, and with a suicidal fish that leaped out of the aquarium. I’ll never entirely trust him with birds, but his behavior has given no cause for complaint. 

At least I wouldn’t have to fend off an interested cat while coping with the wren, which had now moved to a windowsill and was fluttering against the closed window. That was what I had been afraid of-the possibility that it would hit the window hard enough to stun or injure itself. So I went for the butterfly net. 

The net hasn’t been used against an actual butterfly for years, but it’s handy for out-of-place birds. We used to use it to retrieve a budgerigar that was not quite finger-trained. I made a couple of swipes at the wren, but it ducked down among the tchotchkes on the windowsill. Not good. At one point it flew up and perched on the rim of the net. Great, I thought, just hold that pose and I’ll carry you out to the porch. Then it flew back to the window. 

I reflected that my late mother would have hated this situation. A childhood attack by a hen that wouldn’t give up her eggs left her (my mother, not the hen) with a deep-seated fear of birds. This probably makes it psychologically interesting that I became a birder, but I have worse things to worry about.  

She would always call bird-owning friends before visiting to make sure the budgie or canary was caged. Once a small flock of chimney swifts burst out of our fireplace in Little Rock, and she freaked out, as did the Siamese cat, who was a high-strung animal even for his breed. Walk-through aviaries were not her favorite places, and I can imagine her reaction to having rainbow lorikeets perch on her head. 

Meanwhile, the net was not working for me. In desperation I made a two-handed grab for the wren, trying to be as gentle as possible. And I got it. It gave a dismayed squawk—the first thing out of its mouth. The bird was almost weightless (about a third of an ounce, says the Sibley Guide.) 

Out to the front porch, quickly. I opened my hands and the wren flew out of them, into the Hollywood juniper. We haven’t seen or heard it since. Since I value it as a neighbor, I hope it wasn’t upset enough to relocate.  

In parts of the British Isles, hunting the wren (that would be what Americans call the winter wren, not the Bewick’s) on St. Stephen’s Day—Dec. 26—is an ancient tradition. One version turns the quarry into a hulking creature that has to be dispatched with a cannon, hauled home by a team of oxen, and cooked in a great black cauldron. Sounds like a lot of work. Better to let the wren come to you.