The Charm of Birds Chapter One Part Three

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Adapted by Alison Pryce

Chapter One Part One    Part Two     Part Three    Part Four    Part Five    Part Six    Part Seven

The wren shall come next. Of the wren, as of the robin, it may be said that in a not unfavourable year its song may be heard in every month, but not so certainly as that of the robin. It is pleasant to make a point of hearing a wren sing at any rate once even in the most silent month, but there are times when this is not accomplished without trouble and anxiety. In a fairly mild January, however, the hearing of a wren's song should be assured. The wren's song is a succession of rapid notes, forming a long musical sentence, that is repeated again and again at intervals. The full sentence is a long one, but the bird very often begins it and leaves off in the middle or even after the first few notes: a good example of what we were taught at school to call " aposiopesis " ; like the woman who, after speaking for a time at a public meeting, began a sentence with the words "But still ... ," then stopped and sat down. But when a wren is in good form he sings, as it was said the young Queen Victoria danced at a Court function in Paris, " with decision, and right through to the end."

To appreciate the song, however, the person of the wren, as well as its voice, must be taken into account. The song is a good loud one, but when considered in relation to the tiny body, it is positively mighty. " Valiant," "resounding," are epithets that I have applied when listening to a wren singing: and a little boy, whose mother had taught him to be familiar with the song, spoke, while doing lessons in an open-air parlour, of "that shattering wren." Great as the effort of the song seems to be, a wren at the height of the season will repeat it at short intervals for a long time without tiring.

There are individual wren songs that stand up like little peaks in memory.

Once, in days of youthful ignorance, a loud song proceeding from a thick cypress arrested my attention. It was long ago, in March 1884. I wondered what bird this was, and struck the branches with my stick. Out flew an unabashed wren, to perch elsewhere, and repeat the singing. The contrast between the size of the body and the strength of the song impressed itself on me, then and there, never to be forgotten.

There was another occasion, some years later.

We had a cottage in the Itchen Valley, and had gone there early on a Saturday morning after a weary week in London; it was about 8 o'clock on a fine warm morning. I had just arrived, and stood in the doorway that opened on to the little lawn. Escaped from London at this season of the year, on such a day and in such a place, with the week-end prospect before me, I was indeed "standing on the top ·of golden hours": in front, some ten yards away, was a poplar tree, and from it a wren sprang into the air, and, singing in an ecstasy as he flew, passed straight over me and over the cottage roof to some other place of bliss on the farther side: "like a blessing," said one who was with me.

Wordsworth in the " Prelude" records an incident, differing in mood and setting, but similar in kind, in which the song of a single wren animated a ruined chapel. This was remembered, and added to that store of " emotion recollected in tranquillity," which he gives as a definition of poetry.

A third memory is of recent date. The incident occurred in the greenhouse, where a wren was in the habit of coming and going through open windows or ventilators. I heard the wren singing with even more than usual violence, perched somewhere among the plants. The cause was plain-another wren was singing outside, and there was a song combat. When two birds in neighbouring territories are singing in rivalry, it is the rule that they do not sing together: each in turn listens while the other sings; then the bird that has listened replies. So it was now. The greenhouse wren was used to seeing men about the plants, but besides this familiarity, it was so intensely occupied in listening to the song outside and then exerting itself to the utmost in reply, that it took no notice of my approach. I watched it for some time at a distance of not more than two or three feet, perhaps even less. The strophe and antistrophe went on; the attitude of my wren when listening was intent and still; when it replied the animation and vehemence were such that it seemed as if this little atom of life might be shattered by its own energy.

Not .always, however, does the wren's song give this impression of force. On a bleak day in autumn, when chill wind is blowing, a wren's song will unexpectedly be heard, and at a distance will sound thin. Wordsworth describes this aspect of wren song ;

" To the wind she sometimes gives A slender, unexpected strain."

It must not be inferred from the space given to it here that the wren's song is thought the best we have. It is a good song, clear, distinct, musical, and pleasant; it is elaborate rather than simple, and is well turned out. There are, how ever, other songs of higher quality, but the personality and song of the wren are so familiar and give so much entertainment that they cannot be passed over lightly.

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