Thursday, December 4, 2008


We had a visitor last night—a Carolina wren which darted into the hall the moment the back door was opened and made a quick left turn into my study. There it flitted from place to place, perching on the edge of bookshelves, atop the fireplace mantel or a picture frame, and most other various odds and ends of the room’s clutter. 

 Like most wrens who suddenly find themselves in an unexpected predicament, this one seemed more indignant than frightened, as if I’d had the audacity to play a practical joke on it by luring it into the house in the first place. The little bird’s watchful, dark-eyed stare seemed mostly vexed and impatient: “Okay, you’ve had your fun, you big oaf—now get me outta this silly room before I really lose my temper.” 

Lucky for the wren, I have long experience in such removals. After taking a quick photo, I simply turned off the hall light, opened the back door and turned on the outside light. The wren did the rest, immediately launching itself from the top of my computer monitor and out into the night—doubtless glad to be done with the bright lights and clamor, and anxious to find a less busy roost site and get back to a sleep without further interruptions. 

 I wished it well. 

 When I was growing up, wrens were always a part of our daily lives, whether we were working around the house, sitting under the shade of a backyard maple, or eating a meal in the kitchen. Wrens seemed to especially enjoy flitting about within the big red haw’s thick foliage, which spread like an umbrella over the back porch. The door off the back porch opened into the kitchen. On countless occasions we’d be sitting at the table when a Carolina wren—perched in the haw tree—would suddenly burst into song. “Sweet 'tater, sweet 'tater, sweet 'tater, sweet!” the bird would sing at the top of its lungs. (In case you don’t know, this is the hill-country interpretation of their song. You may be more familiar with the “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle” rendering.) The mellifluous melody would come blasting in through the screen door and we'd all pause in our eating or talking to listen and grin at one another in pleasure. 

The aluminium awning my father installed over the small back porch was a favorite wren roosting spot. The birds would tuck themselves between the awning’s rear framework and the siding-clad wall of the house. We usually remembered they were there and acted accordingly, not switching on the porch light or using the door unless it was absolutely necessary. 

Sometimes, however, one of us would forget. We’d flip on the light and fling open the door, and the startled wren would flush off its roost. Whether due to being blinded or just confused by the sudden light, about one time in ten the wren would mistakenly fly into the house. Most times all you had to do was turn off the inside lights and leave the back porch light on, and the bird would dart back outdoors where it belonged. 

But not always. Every so often Dad or I had to retrieve the long-handled fish net from the basement and use it to gently scoop a perplexed wren from a book shelf or the top of Mom's stately pump organ in the spare bedroom. Now and then the cornered wren would even allow us to just ease up and take it gently in our hands. 

When my mother passed away a few years ago at the age of 94, I spent months in the old home place sorting through a long lifetime’s worth of furnishings and memories. Sure enough, one winter night I opened the back door to let Moon the dog out for her pre-bedtime constitutional and a Carolina wren zipped into the kitchen. As Yogi Berra would say, it was like “déjà vu all over again.” The fearless little wren watched me with sharp-eyed curiosity as I reached up and gently plucked it from atop the china cabinet. 

I held the bird momentarily, marvelling at its diminutive size and lovely chestnut-and-cinnamon markings. The bird was warm in my hand. I could feel the fast rhythm of its tiny heart. Then, stepping outside, I opened my palm, and gave the Carolina wren back to the starlit winter night.


The Solitary Walker said...

Loved the wren story. My father is 92 next year!

The grizzled but still incorrigible scribe himself! said...

Thank you, Solitary.

As a followup, while I was writing the piece this morning, a Carolina wren inspected the feeder which hangs just beyond my study window, then sat on the window ledge and sang boisterously for a couple more minutes. Don't know whether it was my night visitor wren, though.