Nature Notes for 22nd December, 2016

Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

I WAS definitely not dreaming of a white Christmas. No matter how sparklingly beautiful a snowy morning might look from the window, I’m now more concerned with the inconvenience of being confined to the house and the dangers of slipping and falling. The penalty of growing older! It was quite different when I was young. I was reminded of this the other evening. A friend had been reading us an extract from Wordsworth’s The Prelude in which the poet recalls skating as a boy on Windermere – a physically exhilarating and spiritually nourishing experience. This led us to remember winters in the past when the Tarn on Ilkley Moor froze regularly and there was skating, sometimes lit by fairy lights in the trees. Those of us without skates made slides and generally got in the way. I wondered what happened to the little group of Muscovy ducks that lived in a wooden hut on the island – but was assured that a patch of water was cleared for them at the quieter end of the Tarn. That was all right then – or was it?

A hard winter is tough for birds, especially small birds. They need to feed constantly during the brief hours of daylight just to maintain life. In 1947 feeding the birds meant scattering a few crumbs on the windowsill. Things were a bit better in 1963, but still populations plummeted: morning often revealing pathetic scrawny corpses lying on the ground below their perches. This was particularly true of the wren, a ground feeder and weighing only about 8 - 13 grams. Yet, remarkably, by 1974 the wren population was at its highest. After all, survivors have ready access to food resources and the best nest sites, and wrens can rear two broods of 5-8 young. They live in most habitats – moors, woods, gardens, seacoast – you’re likely to see or hear a wren.

And we love them – or, at least we do now. There is an ancient tradition, commemorated in folk song, of hunting the wren on St Stephen’s Day (26th December). Local lads would go out, capture a wren, tie it to a pole and parade the streets, singing. No doubt in older times it was sacrificed, its Netherlands name “the Winter King” hints at ancient solstice rituals; more recently it probably just died of fright. Thankfully, where the tradition still persists, they use a replica, often made of straw. And, fortunately, we now help our birds through their hard times with scraps, clean water and seed feeders.