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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a flock of wrens

Collective nouns always prove an interesting set of words, but this one at least demands a little bit more investigation: a group of wrens is called a herd.

The wren, of course, is one of the smallest birds in Europe—so why does it demand a group name better suited to assemblies of larger four-legged beasts, like cattle and horses?

Well, before we get onto all that, let’s unpack some of the words here. Wren itself is a metathesized (i.e. reordered) variation of this bird’s ancient Germanic name, werna, the roots of which have long since been lost to the etymological mists of time. Herd is equally ancient, and equally mysterious—proving yet again just how long humans have needed words for farming and livestock. And the Eurasian wren’s taxonomic name, Troglodytes troglodytes, literally means ‘cave-dweller’ in Greek—a reference to its habit of disappearing into cracks and crevices, and remaining steadfastly out of sight for most of the day. In fact, given how relatively rarely wrens are seen, many people are surprised to find that they are in fact the most numerous of all British birds.

Despite its small size, however, the wren isn’t Britain’s smallest bird; adults are typically less than 10cm/4 inches long, and weigh less than 10g/0.3oz, but the smallest bird overall is actually the even more minuscule goldcrest. Nevertheless, those stats are minute enough to make the wren the shortest bird in Britain—and, seemingly, completely ill-suited to assembling in groups called herds.

When we think of herds of animals, we tend to think of fairly sizeable creatures, thundering past in equally sizeable and uncountable numbers. So why is a flock of birds that individually weigh less than a £2 coin known as a herd? Put another way, why has such a small bird been given such a grandiose collective name?

The wren is actually quite well known for—well, punching above its weight.

Ounce for ounce and decibel for decibel, the wren produces the loudest song in relation to its body weight of known any bird (nearly ten times that of a crowing cockerel). Having such a conspicuous song would be noteworthy enough on its own, but the wren is also known for continuing to sing its intricate, anatomy-defying song all the year round, even in the depths of winter when many other birds prefer to conserve energy and remain silent.

Being almost unassailably loud—and moreover, being the only creature making much of a sound at the stillest, bleakest part of the year—has brought the wren enough attention over the centuries to make it the subject of a number of folktales and myths, many of which make a feature of its loud song and its impressively boisterous nature.

According to one such tale, St Stephen, one of the early founders of the Christian church, was imprisoned for his teachings in Jerusalem. One night, he managed to free himself from his cell and was just about to escape from the jailhouse when a wren began singing outside and woke the prison guards. (It’s possible that this tale, or at least some version of it, lies behind the ancient Celtic and Irish culture of hunting wrens on St Stephen’s Day, December 26.)

A more famous tale (of which countless versions exist) claims that all the birds collectively decided to hold a contest to see which of them deserved the title of king. Each species took flight and flew higher and higher into the sky. As the weaker birds dropped out and returned to Earth, a winner emerged: the eagle had soared higher than all others to rightly claim his crown.

But just as the eagle began to tire and slow, a tiny wren who had stowed itself away on his back emerged from beneath his feathers and took flight, higher than any other bird, and stole the crown for itself. The wren—as duplicitous as its methods may have been—is ultimately considered the king of all the birds in many cultures and mythologies. It even wears its crown in a number of languages, including Dutch (in which the wren is the winterkoning, or ‘winter king’), German (Zaunkönig, or ‘hedge king’), and French (roitelet, or ‘little king’).

Of course, what better collective noun could there be for the King of the Birds than a herd—a word more typically reserved for enormous masses of much more powerful, sizeable creatures?

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