The Winter Wren
1. a member of any of various peoples (as in antiquity) who lived or were reputed to live chiefly in caves
2. a person characterized by reclusive habits or outmoded or reactionary attitudes
The wren family is called Troglodytidae. The Winter Wren used to be formally called Troglodytes troglodytes but was split in 2010, along with the Pacific Wren, from the Eurasian Wren, and is now called Troglodytes hiemalis.* Hiemalis translates to winter so the common name is an easy and direct translation if one takes Troglodytes to mean wren rather than cave-dweller, though it is clear that the family and genus were named for their skulky behavior and willingness to forage in crevices and other dark locations.
And while the genus name fits Winter Wrens perfectly considering their penchant for poking about in dark corners and nesting in other out-of-the-way-places they do have one characteristic that makes troglodytes a bit of a misnomer. They are, well, cute.
I don’t know about you but for me the term troglodyte conjures up images of orcs from Tolkien or brutish Neanderthals, not a spritely brown wren with a tiny upcocked tail and a song like water flowing over gumdrops. Any birder who can look at a Winter Wren and not get a grin on their face is even worse than those who can see a kinglet and not smile.
Winter Wrens are attitude and spunk and verve. Though they are only four inches long and tip the scales at nine grams they are, nonetheless, totally ready to take you to the mat and smash you. At least that is the feeling I get when I watch them. You have to be pretty tough to go poking around in crevices when you are only four inches long. The idea of a Winter Wren the size of a person is a frightening thought, especially if you have seen one tear into a spider and reduce it to a snack faster than you can say Troglodytes hiemalis.
Be glad I’m not your size!
If you are interested in learning where you can find a Winter Wren, especially now that the ones in western North America are Pacific Wrens, may I suggest David Allen Sibley’s range map?
Now get out there and find a Winter Wren! Though I doubt it will be as cooperative as the one in this post, which was photographed in Kissena Corridor Park in Queens, New York, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
*The split was made by the American Ornithologists Union, which wisely left the decision as to what to do about the thirty or so subspecies found in Eurasia to some other authority. If the birds in the Western Hemisphere are two species then surely the birds of Europe, Africa, and Asia comprise more than that?
And, just because I like long footnotes, is was a prominent French ornithologist, Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot, who first used the word “hiemalis” to describe the Winter Wren. Sadly, Vieillot died in poverty, despite having contributed the names of 26 genera that are still in use today.
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