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Looking after a family of wrens in my garden
It is one of Britain’s smallest birds, but it has a big personality. Find out how a cheeky wren won wildlife artist Robert E Fuller’s heart and got itself a home for life in the artist’s garden.
Looking after a wren in my garden: winter
When I moved to Fotherdale Farm in 1998, building a vegetable patch was a priority. That autumn I proudly displayed my first ‘harvest’ of shallots and onions in the porch. As the first winter frosts set in, a wren decided that this harvest was a warm place to roost during the cold nights. He spent every night nestled in the shallots and occasionally even had a female friend to stay over.
I became quite fond of this cheeky wren, so I left him three bunches of shallots in the corner. When spring came round, I found that he had actually built a nest in the bunches I had left and that he and his new partner were raising six chicks there. I set him up with his own supply of mealworms just by the back door. If I forgot to top his bowl up he would appear at the window ledge, bobbing up and down to attract my attention and even occasionally tapping his beak against the window.
The shallots by this time had seen better days and, keen to keep my wrens, I bought a woven reed roosting pouch. They clearly loved it and this pair went on to nest here for a further nine years. During particularly cold winters a number of wrens would huddle up together in the roosting pouch to keep warm. The most I ever had was four, which although I’ve heard reports of more, is still quite unusual for a bird that in the sumer is quite territorial.
Looking after wrens in my garden: spring
In January 2007, I was heading off on a big trip wildlife spotting in Antarctica and I had to leave friends and family in charge of the special feeding arrangements for my wrens. But, in spite of my instructions being followed to the letter, the pair had gone by the time I got home. Perhaps old age had got the better of the male. Of course, it wasn’t until the wrens had gone that I realised how complacent I had been about these common garden birds.
The wrens were so ‘everyday’ to me that I had only managed to get a handful of photographs of them over this nine year period, in spite of the fact that they had raised countless chicks in the porch. It was a real missed opportunity. Luckily, the following spring a new pair of wrens arrived and the male started to build a nest in a standard conifer in a pot in the back garden. It was great fun to watch as I could easily see their antics from my studio window.
Looking after wrens in my garden: nesting
A male wren will often build several nests and then take his mate for a tour of the garden to show her his handiwork. I guess it’s a tactic that a sharp estate agent might employ. Show her one and she could turn it, and him, down, but show her three and she’ll make the decision of which she would like to live in the best. He’ll be a winner with whichever one she chooses.
In the end she decided she preferred the modern conveniences offered by the manmade roosting pouch in the porch and set about putting the finishing touches to her new home by way of lining it out with feathers. The wrens settled in nicely. The conifer meanwhile was getting pot bound and so I decided to move it to a flower border at the front of the house.
Looking after wrens in my garden: competing with swallows
In May, the swallows arrived at Fotherdale. Expecting them, I had put up a manmade swallow box for them in the porch. But the swallows were edgy. Wrens sometimes nest in old swallow nests and the swallows wouldn’t tolerate having the wrens so close by. They would viciously dive down onto the wrens at every opportunity to try to chase them away.
To my surprise, the wrens simply switched nest site. They found the new position of the conifer that I had planted out, which was some 50 metres from where the male had originally built the nest and went on to raise their brood of chicks.
Once the swallows fledged, the wrens came back to the porch and nested there for a second clutch. This was my chance to get a close look at these tiny birds. The second smallest of our birds, wrens stand at just 10cm long, but they make up for their size in noise and personality.
Looking after wrens in my garden: what wrens eat
From the porch window I was easily able to watch the comings and goings of these busy birds. When I saw the female take out an egg shell from the nest, I knew that the eggs had hatched. The chicks grow at quite a rate and whilst at first the parents were collecting tiny insects and caterpillars, soon the prey began to get bigger and bigger.
I kept seeing them bringing in a large grub-like insect that I did not recognise. It was huge in comparison to the gaping mouths of the chicks, but somehow they managed to choke them down.
One afternoon while I was sitting in my car, using it as a hide, I worked out what this strange insect was. The wren disappeared into a bush and flew out with an orange underwing moth. I didn’t make the connection until I saw the same moth being pursued by a very determined little wren. The wren grabbed the moth banging it against the gravel. The moth escaped fluttering across the drive, but the wren did not give up easily and she continued to grab and bash it.
She managed to take a wing off, disabling the moth and then proceeded to remove the remaining three wings. A final blow just to finish it off and she had a ready prepared high protein meal for the chicks! I could not help but wonder if it was worth the effort. But this was not a one off. She caught a further six moths in front of me that afternoon. All were ‘de-winged’ in a similar fashion. No wonder I didn’t recognise these large food parcels as they were being brought in.
Wrens are one of the most widespread bird in the United Kingdom and it’s no surprise when you see just how ingenious they are.
Author: Robert E Fuller