Significance to humans

Wrens have no economic impact on agriculture and probably little on forestry. Nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that birds so abundant and so vehement of song should figure as prominently in legend and folklore as wrens do. In Celtic mythology, the wren was the king of the oak tree and the symbol of the old year, while the robin was the symbol of the new year. This gave rise to a tradition of hunting the wren at the winter solstice to make way for the robin. On the Isle of Man and in southern Ireland, groups of boys caught wrens on St. Stephens Day (December 26), which were then paraded around with accompanying verse and solicitations for modest funds. "Wrenning" was not, in fact, confined to Celtic regions of the British Isles, but up until the nineteenth century was widespread over much of England as well. The verses chanted often made reference to the wren as the king of the birds, a belief widespread in the mythologies of very diverse peoples in Europe. In fact, in several European languages the name of the wren implies royalty—Winterkonig (Winter King) in Dutch and Zaunkönig (King of the Fencerow) in German, for example.

Although the origins are obscure, there is a common theme in cultures as various as Ojibwa and Scottish Gaelic of the wren attaining kingship by outwitting the eagle. In one well-known story, all the birds agreed to decide their king by holding a competition to see who could fly highest. When the eagle, who had outflown all the other birds, could climb no more, the wren, which had concealed itself among the eagle's back feathers, popped out and flew just a little higher. The origin of this story may be an Aesop fable that has now been lost. In Native American folklore the wren appears frequently, often as a busybody; in Cherokee belief the wren is supposed to observe women in labor, rejoicing in the birth of a girl and lamenting the appearance of a boy.

1. Winter wren (Troglodytes troglodytes); 2. Gray-breasted wood wren (Henicorhina leucophrys); 3. Canyon wren (Salpinctes mexicanus); 4. Marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris); 5. Black-capped donacobius (Donacobius atricapillus); 6. Northern house wren (Troglodytes aedon); 7. Bay wren (Thryothorus nigricapillus); 8. Sumichrast's wren (Hylorchilus sumichrasti); 9. Zapata wren (Ferminia cerverai); 10. Cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus). (Illustration by Barbara Duperron)

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