Thursday, July 16

Threatened but not extinct – yet!


The wren’s nest in the shrub.

FORTUNATELY, I have been blessed in seeing two bird species that are now recorded on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as threatened and verging on the vulnerable classification of all avian species. Over 20 years ago, I caught, albeit, a torchlight glimpse of one of these birds whilst on a night-time recce at Danum Valley in Sabah. Its frog-like mouth enthralled me. The other very small bird I have seen over generations of its kind living in my Somerset, UK garden. Its swift and jerky flight mesmerises me.


A Jenny Wren at the nest.

‘Little Jenny Wren’ (Troglodytes troglodytes)

My sister reminded me recently that our mother always referred to this diminutive bird by this very name. Then, in our West Cornwall back garden, we would stealthily watch this bird dash hither and thither. Sixty years later, and for the last 30 plus years, I have seen generations of this nymph-like bird, the wren, nesting in holes of an old slate wall here in my garden in Somerset. More recently, one has built a nest of garden moss in a shrub just outside of my front door. It is lined inside with feathers and has one small slightly canopied hole in which to enter.

A male wren is the builder of at least five nests, but the female has the final choice of which she selects to lay her eggs.

Hopefully my garden lawns containing more moss than grass would seduce her!

I patiently wait for the chirping of five to seven chicks!

Being realistic, I suspect that the hen wren would have chosen a nest high up in the old crumbling slate wall, for the simple reasons that a ‘troglodyte’ is a cave dweller and the moss nest, in my shrub, is only a metre above ground level and is thus susceptible to rats, weasels and stoats.

Interestingly, the Greek word ‘troglodytes’ comes from ‘trogle’, meaning ‘a hole’ and ‘dyein’ to ‘get into’.

Characteristics of this diminutive bird

The gold crest is the only smaller bird in the UK. The wren, with its short cocked tail and a penetratingly loud call, is only 8.5cm in length, from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail. With its brown colourations and a speckled brown breast, in wintertime it merges well with dead garden plants. Feeding mostly on aphids and other insects, selectively picking them off the leaves, stems and barks of trees, this bird has been described by one ornithologist as ‘an avian vacuum cleaner.’ Usually from April onwards, once the hen has chosen her nest and lined it with feathers, she would lay a clutch of up to seven white eggs with fine reddish-brown spots. She, alone, incubates the eggs within a fortnight. The cock wren shares feeding- times with the hen and the nestlings are fully fledged after 15 days. Wrens are polygamous and up to two broods are raised each year.

Many dialect names are given to this bird in the UK, but I like my Somerset version of ‘scutty’ for, indeed, the wren scuttles here and there on its jarring flight path.

These birds are very sensitive to weather and in the exceptionally cold winter of 1962 to 1963, their total numbers fell severely. Often, on very cold nights, they would form a colony of up to 40 wrens – all huddling together to keep warm.

Steeped in history

The very name ‘wren’ is derived from the Middle English word ‘wrenne’, meaning ‘a little tail’. For centuries, until 1961, the smallest British coin, a ‘farthing’ or one quarter of a penny, had a wren embossed on its reverse side.

Fortunately, I have several farthings in my coin collection let alone my memories as a child in buying lollipops at a penny farthing (1.25 pennies)!

The wren abounds in folklore in both the UK and in Ireland, where this bird was once hunted for the Festival of St Stephen’s Day or Boxing Day (Dec 26). Such wren-hunting festivals were well attended in medieval times up until the 1850s. In many other parts of the UK, the wren was a revered bird, and low and behold anyone who killed a wren!

Sadly today, wren numbers are falling fast perhaps through disease or atmospheric pollution. I pray that I may be fortunate to see these birds in my garden for many a year to come.

The Malaysian Large Frogmouth bird (Batrachostomus auritus)

This bird, a member of the Night-Jar family was once found only in primary dipterocarp lowland forests in Southern Thailand, Brunei, Western Malaysia and Indonesia and of course, Sabah and Sarawak.

Its legacy

Robert WC Shelford — Curator of Sarawak Museum (1897-1904).

In the early first decade of the 20th century when Robert WC Shelford was the Curator of the Sarawak Museum (1897-1904), his records of the Large Frogmouth were second to none, albeit published posthumously in his 1916 book ‘A Naturalist in Borneo’.

I am a fortunate owner of a first edition.

A Grog-Mouth’s egg being laid precariously on a branch — photographed in the early 20th century by JC Mouton in the Sarawak Museum.

Shelford refers to this bird; ‘with a nest of curious structure … a thick circular pad of fine down (feathers) closely matted together and firmly attached to the slender branch of a shrub or small tree in which a single egg is laid’.

He maintained that a nest holding such a big egg was anchored to the branch by a glutinous substance secreted by this bird in order to hold the egg in such a precarious position.

Shelford noted that; ‘like the Night-Jar, the Frogmouth lies along and not across the branch bearing the nest’.

More recent research, from their extensive observations, two Malaysian ornithologists, Tan G C and Yong D L, have recorded nests up to 8cm in diameter, with the adult birds perched on the branch when feeding their chicks. Both the hen and cock birds take ‘shifts’ by day and night in incubating the egg.

The incubation of a sole egg takes about 32 days. The white downy chick losing its ‘birth-coat’ within a few days of hatching becomes a full fledging between 20 and 38 days.

Colourations and diet

Lengthwise, the Large Frogmouth, at 42cm, appears as a giant compared with the minute wren. There are little distinguishable colourations between male and female birds, for their variations in colour are between chestnut to blackish-brown with whitish-red and buff spots here and there. Their underparts are a dull brown or slightly reddish-brown. The fan-like feathers under their beaks look like modern man’s designer beard stubble!

As essentially night hunters, mostly feeding off cicadas and grasshoppers in the trees canopies or on the ground, by day they are camouflaged well and just hide away.

Even more research is needed on both these exquisite species of birds. I am a great believer that the more we know, there is yet even more to know about all bird species, animals, fish, reptiles and insects and, indeed, the world in which we are fortunate to live.