Winter Wren

(This column first appeared in the August 3, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    The winter wren was singing when we first arrived at our cabin in the Minnesota Boundary Waters and a week later it was still serenading us as we packed up to leave.

    The song is impossible to describe. To say that it is a long series of unexpectedly loud warbles and tinkles and trills, its notes higher than the highest on a piano, is like describing the painting of an old master by naming its colors. Maine author Cordelia Stanwood describes it as a babbling brook come to life and I agree with her that it is the Spirit of the Woods. To my ear its is the most beautiful bird song.

    This was the second time this year I was serenaded by a winter wren. On our May hike on the Finger Lakes Trail in Chemung County, Jim DeWan and I were sung to sleep one evening and awakened the next morning by that lovely sound.

    How one of our tiniest birds can sing so lustily is a mystery. The winter wren is not even as big as a house wren. I seldom see them because they are shy and -- mouselike -- usually frequent the undergrowth. But once I followed a song to its source deep in a wooded glen where I found the diminutive, dark brown wren, tail up and constantly bobbing, searching for insects among mushrooms, moss and exposed tree roots. At my approach its song quieted to a near whisper, but after several minutes the little wren ignored me and suddenly burst forth. I have never seen a bird's mouth so agape. Its upper and lower bills were in a straight line. If it had faced me, I am sure I could have seen down into those ballooning lungs. And the resulting glorious song encompassed me.

    Years ago when bird song was first being recorded, Paul Kellogg invited me to name a bird I would like to hear. Paul, a retired acoustical engineer, had joined ornithologist Arthur Allen at Cornell University to pursue his hobby of birding. There he started one of the world's finest collections of bird and other animal sounds. I knew Paul as a fellow officer of the then newly formed Federation of New York State Bird Clubs and his offer came after a board meeting of that organization.

    No contest. I chose winter wren.

    Paul took down a tape spool, carefully placed it on his desk-sized sound apparatus and turned on the speaker. The room was immediately filled with that wonderful song.

    We timed successive bursts. Each one continued for six to eight seconds, quite unusual when you consider that a song sparrow's seemingly lengthy chatter lasts less than three.

    Next Paul reran the tape at half speed. This not only slowed the song so that we could begin to separate trills and warbles, it also lowered the pitch an octave. But the notes still came so fast that we could not distinguish them. Only when Paul slowed the tape to one-eighth speed -- in the process reducing the little wren's soprano tinkle to a baritone burping -- were we able to count them. Remarkably, there were over a hundred in each series.

    The male winter wren, unlike house and marsh wrens, is a family man who takes his responsibilities seriously. He carries food -- almost exclusively insects -- to his mate on their nest and continues with her to feed their four to seven offspring until they fledge. In another year some of those youngsters will add to the forest chorus.

    My friend Paul Kellogg died some years ago. I hope that his particular heaven rings with a winter wren's delightful melodies.